Deriving Happiness: An Interview with Stefan Sagmeister
How do we gauge happiness? Is it a result of physical acts, the relationships we maintain, our mental state of being? Perhaps all of those/none? The definition of happiness is largely subjective, multi-faceted, and varies depending on who you ask.
Stefan Sagmeister has spent the last several years studying happiness and its impact. His findings have fueled much of his speaking over the past few years as he attempts to quantify the role it plays in everyday life. His research has inspired design projects, a pending documentary on the subject, and many thoughts on increasing happiness. While it can be difficult to define on an individual level, Sagmeister has come at it sideways, examining the metrics, as well as the methods of happy people–even including himself in his research efforts.
Stefan was kind enough to speak with us about his work and a few thoughts on the subject of happiness:
I find it helpful to think of happiness in terms of length of time: There is short term happiness, mid-term happiness, and long term happiness.
You’ve spent several years doing extensive research on the subject of happiness. Based off your findings, what is your definition of happiness/being happy?
I wanted to see if it is possible to train my mind in the same way it is clearly possible to train my body. I ran a NYC marathon once and even though I am clearly not sporty, after a years worth of training I had gotten much better. I wanted to find out if the same thing could be true for the mind. So I followed the advice of one of my favorite psychologists, Jonathan Haidt, and tried out three effective strategies for three months each: Meditation, cognitive therapy and drugs.
As far as a definition is concerned, I find it helpful to think of happiness in terms of length of time: There is short term happiness (joy, orgasms etc), mid-term happiness (satisfaction and well-being), and long term happiness (meaning, finding what you are good for in life).
Do you think that happiness is something we can actually create, or do you think it’s a by-product of our own emotional state? Or perhaps, both?
I think it can ensue if we manage to get the relationship to other people (lovers, friends, family) right, if we get the relationship to our work and the relationship to something that’s bigger than ourselves right.
How do these types of interactions in your opinion, add to a designer(s) overall happiness?
I assume this would be very clear. The more of my relationships (between people, work and something larger than myself) I can get right, the likelier the possibility for happiness to ensue.
We love what you’ve done to discover techniques and practices that bring us happiness – since a lot of our time is spent at work, what interactions and experiences make us feel happier?
In my case: The possibility of thinking about a project without a deadline looming. The possibility of working on something craft-related for a long time at the edge of my capabilities. And the moment when something comes back from the printer, well produced.
This year’s theme for WebVisions is HACK HAPPINESS, which implies an active participation in doing the things that make us happy. If you could make a happiness hacking kit, what would it include?
It would include a little notebook for the bedside table, in which to write every day three things that worked that day. There is very good science that shows that, why and how that works in elevating well-being.
If you were to chart happiness over time – from the middle ages to today – where would we be on the happiness spectrum, and do you think that technology and the speed of access to communication has improved or worsened people’s happiness?
As there was no happiness research in the middle ages (they had other stuff to worry about), scientists compare various indigenous societies similar in development to a certain age of Western societies. If you look at violence (an important factor in happiness studies), it turns out that violence has been going DOWN steadily for the past 20 centuries.
Every single century was less violent than the one that preceded it. Civilization works.
Right now over 50% of the world population live in cities. For this part of the population, EVERYTHING surrounding them has been designed, from the contact lens, to the cloth, the chair, the room, the house, the street, the park, the city. These designed surroundings play exactly the same role to a city dweller as nature does to an indigenous person living in a rain forest. They can be designed well or badly. They will make a difference. There are of course many products out there that do make our life easier, but we tend to only notice them when they fail badly. I can be in a plane going up and completely ignore the fact of what an incredible piece of design that really is. I’ll notice it when we crash.
Research always begins with a set of preconceived notions that are re-adjusted as we gain more knowledge. Throughout this process what were the things that surprised you and changed the way you think about happiness?
That 20 minutes of exercise had a bigger influence on the quality of my day then 40 minutes of meditation.
With the proliferation of new technology available, and the expectations that go with it, do you think it is harder to be a happy designer now than 20 years ago? Why?
There are a number of developments that make our job more boring. As the tools became streamlined and run within the same machine, we lost the need to be in different spaces and engage in wildly different tasks. Designers only one generation before me were still engaged in stone lithography, silk-screen printing, painting and hand calligraphy on a daily basis. This made their work lives more varied. However, the field also got much wider, so there is possibility for increased variety there. We had days where within a single day we worked on a documentary film, some furniture, a large website, a branding project. It might be a wash.
What advice would you give to designers who are looking for more happiness in their daily lives?
- When opening the inbox in the morning, single out one mail for a special thank you/praise.
- Have low expectations and display incredible surprise and joy at the anomaly of something–against expectations–going right.
When you hire someone at Sagmeister & Walsh, how much does a person’s happiness affect the outcome?
About half the decision is portfolio related, the other half how much we like the person. Do we want to spend serious amounts of time with each other? We tend to gravitate towards up, positive people. I myself do my best work when I’m in good shape, when I’m depressed or sad I don’t get anything done at all.
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Stefan Sagmeister is the keynote speaker at WebVisions Barcelona 2015, which takes place from July 2-4 at IED Design School. His session, “Design and Happiness”, will share how he incorporated principles of happiness into his work and life.
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