How Can We Be Happy? 2 Designers Create a Film to Find Out

The Happy Film examines what happens when we follow psychologists' advice—and when we do things that scare us

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Designer/filmmaker Hillman Curtis and designer Stefan Sagmeister have collaborated on a feature-length film for well over a year. However, it is unfinished and they won't be truly happy until it is complete. Money, which cannot buy said happiness, is the root of their woes, so on August 4 they had a fundraiser at the SVA Theater in New York, with a screening of the work-in-progress, which given these hard economic times is prophetically titled The Happy Film.

The Happy Film was conceived as a documentary that looks at the strategies serious psychologists recommend to improve personal well-being and overall happiness. "'Is it possible to train our mind in the same way that we train our bodies?' and 'Can we change our behavior to make us happier?' are the main themes," Curtis explained. And Sagmeister, known for issuing manifesto-like maxims as mammoth environmental typographic happenings, poses these questions through "self-experiments and explorations" that are loosely based on his 2009 book of typographic truisms, Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far. "These are the access points to a larger exploration of happiness—its cultural significance, our constant pursuit of it, and its uniquely ephemeral nature," said producer Ben Nabors.

As Curtis puts it, "I always say the film is about a guy holding a flower (a scene in the first section of the film where Stefan tries to give a flower to a stranger). I think it's about putting yourself out there and doing things that scare you. It's not a given that happiness or even a slightly elevated sense of happiness is what Stef will end up with ... and that's maybe the most interesting aspect of the film."

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But why happiness?

"Even though I normally don't enjoy quoting other people," Sagmeister responded in his lilting Viennese accent, "I'll answer this question with a quote anyway, from the 17th-century philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal. 'All men seek happiness. This is without exception. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. This is the motive of every action of every man, even those who hang themselves.' That's why!"

Point taken. But happiness is so abstract; do we really know it when it slaps us in the face? Curtis insisted that the film is less about conventional happiness than challenging yourself "to do things that normally scare you and to try to become more of the person you want to become."

I asked Sagmeister how closely this film is related to Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far. Is it simply a film adaptation? "Not really," he said. "Certain sentences from the book will feature in the film, but the film will feel altogether more personal and less designy." He added, "it is a film on the happiness (or sadness) of a person that happens to be a designer."

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Nonetheless, Sagmeister is the foremost on-screen presence, so I asked him what he actually has done as the "star" that he had not done in his personal or professional life. "I asked a woman on the street for her phone number," he responded happily. Nice, but what is it like to be the center of this kind of attention? "Embarrassing," he said with a slight cringe.

This is still a serious movie with a direct, pragmatic goal. "I'll try out various strategies psychologists recommend that should improve my well-being," Sagmeister stated. "And In the best case scenario, someone in the audience might feel that one or the other strategy might work for them and will try it out. I don't think that watching the movie will make you happier—or smarter. It won't stop you from entertaining awful thoughts under the shower in the morning."

With two more sections of trials—therapy and drugs—that need to be documented, we'll never know the meaning of or the means to happiness unless the filmmakers can raise the dough.

Images: Courtesy of Ben Nabors