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Stefan Sagmeister on the pursuit of “Happy”
The Austrian designer behind Sagmeister & Walsh chatted with us about the making of "The Happy Film" and what he learned along the way.

The last song you listened to: LCD Soundsystem, “New York, I love you”
A project you remember feeling immensely proud about: The Happy Film. Mostly because we got so much feedback from viewers who were delighted or helped by the film, sometimes both, which made it really meaningful for us.
Your favourite place to travel to: Ubud, Bali.
The artist whose work can always inspire you: James Turrell
An anagram of your full name: Nafets Retsiemgas

I grew up above a men’s retail store — my parents owned a big clothing store in a small Western Austrian town. I received the bulk of my formal education — up until my 24th birthday — in Austria. As during these years my brain was still growing, I am sure they were the most influential of my life; many of my deepest connections were forged then. Even though I have lived in and loved New York City for over 25 years, I am still an Austrian citizen and maybe more importantly, I do very much feel Austrian.

Besides design, music was always my other big interest in life and lyrics influenced me perhaps much more so than poetry. By 15 I could recite the lyrics of entire Frank Zappa albums, much to the chagrin of my English teachers. In New York, I did become very aware of Jenny Holzer’s work as a young designer, and ended up helping her out on a project she was doing for the Sueddeutsche Zeitung Magazin. Equally important was my grand father’s work that hung in our apartment in Bregenz, Austria: he was a trained sign painter and I grew up surrounded by his hand carved signs bearing his calligraphy. The biggest of them is now in my apartment in NYC.

stefan sagmeister the creator class

I wanted to find an answer to the question, “is it really is possible to train my own mind in the same way it is possible to train my body?”

During my second sabbatical [from Sagmeister & Walsh] I was looking for something meaningful to design, and “The Happy Film” seemed to fit the bill: it forced me into doing a whole lot of research and experiments within this field. I also figured that whatever we do might have a chance to be of possible service to other people.

I had always been interested in how to improve my and my surroundings’ well-being, in a sense, so why focus on anything else with this project? Most things I do everyday are somehow geared towards this goal anyway, often just not in as a direct way. And it seemed more challenging to do this in film rather than print; trying out a new medium prevents me to become too complacent.

I wanted to find an answer to the question, “is it really is possible to train my own mind in the same way it is possible to train my body?” Can I – through various techniques that will include acts of meditation, cognitive therapy and drugs – increase my overall level of happiness?

stefan sagmeister the creator class

I don’t think it is ultimately a sad story. It’s about what a mess life really is.

There were many discussions about what should be and what should not be in the film. The strategy was: let’s shoot everything, and decide later if we should use it. And I did not see a lot of things coming during the making of this film. It started out as a design project with me in a rather fine mood. Then my Mum died. Our co-director died. Relationships fell apart. And yet, strangely, I don’t think it is ultimately a sad story. It’s about what a mess life really is.

At the end of it all, “The Happy Film” taught me:

  • That 20 minute of exercise had a bigger influence on the quality of my day then 40 minutes of meditation.
  • To always put the shower curtain inside the tub.
  • That my scientific adviser Johnathan Haidt was right. Surprisingly, about 8 months after the completion of the film, I actually became happier. I finally understood our Jonathan’s conclusion that happiness comes from “in between”: he thinks happiness can ensue if I manage to get the relationship to other people (lovers, friends, family) right; if I get the relationship to my work and the relationship to something that’s bigger than myself right. He is right.
  • Artists only creating when in pain is a myth. New research uncovered that even the universal poster child for the suffering artist, Vincent Van Gogh, likely did not cut his own ear off. He lost it in a drunken brawl. The artists and designers I’ve met create little of value when they are down and depressed, and are much more productive when they are in good shape. I know personally that I am much more useful to other people when I’m doing well.

Stefan Sagmeister

Want to catch “The Happy Film” at a screening near you? Click here for a full listing.