20.02.15 / Stefan Sagmeister / Design and Happiness

Stefan Sagmeister / Design & Happiness Keynote Presentation and Q&A Session, Friday 20 February 2015

Words by Cat Wall

Please note that this is a shortened version. The full version is available here.

As the audience in the sold out Deakin Edge theatre hung onto every word of Stefan Sagmeister’s opening yarn, it should have come as no surprise that it unfolded into an anecdote about a sea manatee giving itself a blowjob. Or that it had very little relevance to the rest of the keynote. But there we were.

Stefan Sagmeister. Famous? Okay. Unconventional? Without doubt.

 

If I don’t ask, I don’t get

On his second sabbatical six years ago, the idea for The Happy Film came about. In the last six years, the film has produced some side projects — the most notable being an exhibition called The Happy Show. When Sagmeister & Walsh went to look at the gallery space, Stefan noticed non-spaces — staircases, wheelchair ramp, elevators. With a single question — “Can we use these spaces, too?” — they doubled their exhibition square footage.

“If I don’t ask, I don’t get,” Says Stefan. “It’s not a bad life motto.”

 

Be more flexible

Stefan discussed ways happiness can be divided based on a poll of 600,000 people. Basic life conditions — the thing we assume matters most — account for only 10 per cent of our overall happiness. We get used to them, we take them for granted.

Income plays a giant role up to $85k a year, with its role becoming more significant the lower it is. But above $85k, the differences become too small to measure. Genetics account for half of our overall happiness, yet we can’t do anything about them. Which leaves ‘non-repetitive activities’ to, rather surprisingly, make up the final 40 per cent. The fact that non-repetitive activities are so important means there is a large degree of spontaneity to happiness. Being more flexible does people well.

 

The Happiness Hypothesis

The Happy Show is based on Jonathan Haidt’s book The Happiness Hypothesis. When discussing the conscious and unconscious mind, Jonathan uses the metaphor of a small rider sitting on a giant elephant. The rider (conscious mind) thinks he can tell the elephant (unconscious mind) where to go, but the elephant has his own ideas. It’s only through training (meditation, cognitive therapy and legal drugs) that the two have a chance to learn to work together and elevate your overall wellbeing.

 

A negativity bias

There are six basic emotions: sadness, joy, disgust, surprise, anger and fear. Only one of them is positive. This contributes to what psychologists call a ‘negativity bias’. For example, on a blog there can be 100 comments, 98 of which are positive. Yet we automatically zoom in on the two negative ones. Why? Because our brain contains a shortcut that allows fear to process much faster than joy. It’s a prehistoric instinct.

 

Do the things you set out to do

One of the personal discoveries Stefan made during his experiments with happiness was that he is better off doing 20 minutes exercise everyday than doing 40 minutes of meditation. He wanted to represent this in The Happy Show, so they installed an exercise bike that, when ridden, powered a neon piece of typography that read, “Actually doing the things I set out to do increases my overall level of satisfaction.”

If we see something and think, “I should do this”, then fail to do it, it leaves residue in our minds. And if we do it multiple times, that residue clumps together and really brings us down. He strongly advises that you take a note of the “I should do thats” and actually do them.

 

Uselessness is gorgeous

On a trip to Indonesia, Stefan a discovered a repeatable way to reach bliss. He took a scooter. He some music on an MP3 player. He rode around with no reason, purpose or function. Every time he did it, he had shivers down his spine — biological proof of a happy moment. It worked every time, until the day they filmed it for The Happy Film. Until it had a purpose.

Something that has no function whatsoever can be absolutely beautiful. Ultimately, a very anti-design message.

 

What makes us happy

To summarise, Stefan runs through what makes us happy. Many friends, good friends, a sense of accomplishment, non-repetitive activities, religion and singing in groups.

He asks the crowd to stand and begins another story. Seven years ago, his sister joined a choir. Every time she comes out of practice, she is elated. He brought a German song that he re-wrote the lyrics for. It’s a “complaining” song.

Ode to Joyplays.

The screen fills with lyrics and the audience starts to sing: All my clients drive me crazy / never show no guts at all. / For the peanuts that they pay me / they get logos 10-feet tall.

The crowd is buzzing. His sister’s recipe worked.

He concludes with a tip. The last thing he does each evening is write down three things that worked that day. It’s super easy. It takes a minute. It has a huge reward for how little work it is. Because in an instance where his thoughts would normally turn to the things that didn’t work throughout the day, this fights his desire for negativism.

And if you think this is all crap? He advises you go see this guy.

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Photography by Dean Gordon

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