stefan sagmeister: the happy show.

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Ask any good parent what their ultimate hope is for their child and the answer is usually the same: they want them to be happy. As adults, it’s the beginning of a new year, everyone is back at work and our resolutions – everything that seemed so possible mere weeks ago – are already being tested. While we strive to improve ourselves, in little and large ways, I think that if we distilled all of our resolutions into one succinct, combined, communal wish it would be “I want to be happier.” Don’t all personal roads we yearn to travel really lead to a place where we simply like ourselves more? And that’s why my visit last weekend to Stefan Sagmeister’s The Happy Show at Design Exchange came at exactly the right time.

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Sagmeister’s hand-written style lends itself perfectly to the energy of the entire exhibit. It’s more like a note passed in class than a formal letter. We’re not sitting down to study the official manual of happiness; we’re wandering, loosely, through the thoughts of someone that admittedly isn’t any more sure of the answers than we are. But he’s trying – and that’s what matters. From the hands protruding out of the wall offering Sagmeister’s favourite ginger candies (I took one) to the first 14 minutes of his eventual feature length documentary “The Happy Film” (I watched it twice), all of it gleaming in a beckoning coat of sunshine yellow, there was a feeling of wandering, like Alice, into an over-sized handwritten journal with past lessons come to life in a serene, contemplative Wonderland. 

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The show is a balance between information and experience. The walls in the first section are covered in stats and figures revealing truths and examining how we, as a society, define the idea of happy and how we all strive to get there. The other aspect is interactive, offering mini-challenges that, in the case of the “Happiness Instructional Card Dispenser” where a card shot out of the wall telling me to text a joke to a number I’d never heard of, don’t really seem to have any goal greater than the fact that you allowed yourself to follow your curiosity and just do it. The “Gumball Personal Happiness Survey”, while delightfully retro, is more than just an easy attempt at interaction. The world’s psychologists do much of their research in the exact same way: they ask. Sagmeister writes “This seemed laughable to me until I learned that when freshly interviewed people were put into an MRI scanner, the data matched neatly. When their family & friends were also questioned, ditto, it all conformed.” (For the record, I took mine from #8.)

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And if we could find happiness, what would it look like exactly? As part of crowd-sourcing visual ideas of hand-drawn happy by collecting them at the exhibit and asking for them to be submitted to The Happy Show’s TumblrI just started drawing and didn’t think about it too much. Apparently happiness for me is being on a boat with a husband (sounds about right). That little nugget next to the sail is either a small child or a large dog – haven’t figured that part out yet. Clearly I’m much better at writing about art than drawing it, but my jellyfish (lower right) is pretty bad ass.

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At the risk of sounding delusional, I felt like a bit of a kindred spirit with Sagmeister. Creative types probably have some of the same psychological hurdles and the things that obviously resonated enough for him to become part of the show struck me plainly. His explanation behind “Trying To Look Good Limits My Life”, while ironically also an exercise in really good-looking typography, felt like it could have been written by myself had I had the right moment of lucidity to get it out:

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But my favourite moment of the entire show was “Actually Doing the Things I Set Out to Do Increased My Overall Level of Satisfaction.” In the middle of the room sat a white bicycle on a metal riser, with instructions to ride it. My first thought was that it would be too embarrassing to hop onto a bicycle for an unknown reason in a room full of strangers. Then I asked a Docent if I was really allowed to ride the bicycle (so Canadian of me…) Then, brilliantly, across from the bicycle, I saw that Sagmeister had written: “Every single time I think ‘I should do this’ or ‘I should do that’ and then don’t follow through and actually do it, the uncompleted action creates a little nagging but otherwise empty space in my mind. I’ll also miss out on the satisfying feelings that comes with the completion of a project.”

He caught me! After that, there was no way I could live without getting on the damn bicycle. So I rode, and as I did the unlit matrix of neon tubing, in four simple phrases, taught what for me was the most significant insight of the day:

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If you don’t feel uncomfortable sometimes, you’re not doing anything worth doing. Lesson learned. It happened so simply and the sensation of realizing it so implicitly was a bit like getting up too quickly and seeing stars. I had one of those moments that you stop after and say to yourself “try to remember this.” It was fulfilling and invigorating and as I walked out of the exhibit onto the street I felt something palpable and tangible and easily defined. I was happy.

The Happy Show runs until March 3, 2013 at Design Exchange.

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