“I’m doing fine,” Stefan Sagmeister tells me on Thursday when I inquire about his current happiness level. “I’m at the very, very end of this process, and I’m at about a 7.6.”
He is referring to his weekly rating system, where he tallies up points for a list of things that contribute to his overall happiness–everything from “no alcohol” to “being social”–and ranks himself on a scale of 1 to 10. He’s been doing it every Monday morning for the past seven years. That’s the duration of time he has been filming The Happy Film, an ambitious new documentary that traces his studied quest for self-improvement.
And a 7.6 is really not bad when you consider where he was when he started the project (a 3). In 2008, the designer had just come out of a long-term relationship. He felt anxious and dejected even living in Indonesia on a yearlong sabbatical from his prominent New York-based design firm, Sagmeister & Walsh. To top it off, a close friend, after seeing the furniture he was making at the time, suggested that there must be something better he could dedicate his time to.
So he turned his attention to a subject he had explored before: happiness. Those projects–among them, his book Things I Have Learned In My Life and a TED talk on design and happiness–were the ones that he had always gotten the best feedback on anyway. “I didn’t know any better, so I said, ‘Oh this will be a nice challenge. Why not do it as a film?'” he says. “I thought if it’s about happiness there will be challenges involved. If it’s going to be a challenge, why not just go for a film?”
In The Happy Film, Sagmeister pursues happiness like a true designer: systematically, experimentally, and with lots and lots of visuals. Based on extensive reading of positive psychology, he chooses to explore three popular methods for finding happiness: meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy, and psychotropic drugs. Each of these phases in the film is punctuated with lovely typographic interludes that break up the largely confessional style.
Sagmeister proves to be a dedicated student in all three phases. He sits for meditation and follows his therapist’s suggestion to “seek discomfort” with a (somewhat dubious) experiment of picking up women on the street. When he’s prescribed a low dose of Lexapro, he’s sluggish at first and then visibly the most energized he had been the entire film (at one point having downed 15 espressos by midday).
Predictably, the road to happiness is not as formulaic as he’d hoped, and some of the most poignant moments of the film are when major life events–from love to death to work–derail it. “From a scientific point of view, I messed up my own experiment by managing to fall in love in all three of those phases,” he says. “The scientist within the film calls it fishing for sardines while being on a whale. Basically that falling in love is so much stronger than meditation, cognitive therapy, or drugs.”
These days, Sagmeister says he isn’t actively meditating, going to therapy, or taking psychotropic drugs, but he thinks the best route is to take “a little bit of all three.” The main reason for his 7.6? Feeling more fulfilled in his work, particularly The Happy Show exhibition, a spin-off from the show that has enjoyed much success. “I have some confidence that it did what we set out to do [when starting the film],” he says. “Some visitors found the show helpful and some visitors would find it delightful. That is what I would say it means to do really meaningful design.”
The Happy Film is showing at the premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival 4/16-4/22.