The Charles V. Park Library Auditorium was packed with students and faculty as world renowned artist Stefan Sagmeister talked about happiness and the human condition Tuesday night.
The Austrian-born graphic designer knows a thing or two about happiness, as he has been working on a film about his own happiness for the last four years. The result was a 12-minute opus titled, “A Happy Film,” which was meant to inspire communities of other artists and people who appreciate the form.
“The hope was an audience could do something with it,” Sagmeister said. “I thought it would be a challenge. I still don’t have a film. I found it incredibly hard to do a film.”
Along with the film, Sagmeister and his collective have put together shows around the world about the subject. The group has defined happiness on multiple levels – joy and pleasure, satisfaction and well-being and fulfilling one’s potential. They also designed multiple exhibits surrounding these classifications.
Sagmeister utilized every inch of the exhibition space in the museums he presented at, writing on walls, putting art on elevator doors and placing timelines of happiness along wheelchair ramps. He said activities of play take up a huge role in forming a sense of happiness.
“Older people are a little happier than younger people,” Sagmeister said. “Ugly people are as happy as pretty people. From a psychological view, your decision to come to this lecture was a good one, non-repetitive activity.”
Working with author and psychologist Jonathan Haidt, Sagmeister explored his own happiness in three ways that have been proven to work – meditation, cognitive therapy and drugs.
“I would do three months of each with a two-month break in between,” Sagmeister said. “That would be the backbone of the film.”
Meditation, for Sagmeister, was about getting the conscious mind to work with the unconscious mind. He said the unconscious mind controls more decisions people make than they believe.
Through his exploration of happiness, Sagmeister said he found three areas that he needed to work on – thankfulness, sympathetic empathy and humility.
“When I give lectures, I never thanked the people that invited me,” he said. “(Sympathetic empathy) is a path of love and meditation. Ultimately I don’t think it really did what I think it should do. And humility, I don’t give a shit about. I let that one go.”
Sagmeister kept coming back to the concept of love and passion throughout his presentation. At one point, he talked about the concepts of “companionate” love and passionate love, saying “companionate” love was more viable.
“The ‘companionate’ love really has the potential to grow,” Sagmeister said. “To be passionately in love is biologically impossible. It’s dangerous for that high of a dopamine level to be in the body for more than six months.”
Sagmeister added that he searched for bliss while creating, “A Happy Film,” and consistently found it by taking a car ride every week and listening to music. He would drive without the goal of getting somewhere, only traveling with his thoughts.
“I managed to have a moment of bliss every time I would do it,” Sagmeister said.
During the presentation, he shared some of his works, including one piece made of 65,000 coat hangers grouped together to create boxes to spell out “worrying solves nothing.” Small phrases like that were present throughout his work.
By the end of the night, Sagmeister had the entire audience on its feet, singing a karaoke version of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” with lyrics about being over-worked. It was part of his reasoning that people would be happier by the end if they participated in something bigger than just themselves.