Here is the full text of storyteller Stefan Sagmeister’s talk titled “7 Rules for Making More Happiness” at TED conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: 7 rules for making more happiness by Stefan Sagmeister
I spent the best part of last year working on a documentary about my own happiness — trying to see if I can actually train my mind in a particular way, like I can train my body, so I can end up with an improved feeling of overall well-being. Then this January, my mother died, and pursuing a film like that just seemed the last thing that was interesting to me.
So in a very typical, silly designer fashion, after years worth of work, pretty much all I have to show for it are the titles for the film. (Music)… They were still done when I was on sabbatical with my company in Indonesia. We can see the first part here was designed here by pigs. It was a little bit too funky, and we wanted a more feminine point of view and employed a duck who did it in a much more fitting way — fashion. My studio in Bali was only 10 minutes away from a monkey forest, and monkeys, of course, are supposed to be the happiest of all animals.
So we trained them to be able to do three separate words, to lay out them properly. You can see, there still is a little bit of a legibility problem there. The serif is not really in place. So of course, what you don’t do properly yourself is never deemed done really. So this is us climbing onto the trees and putting it up over the Sayan Valley in Indonesia.
In that year, what I did do a lot was look at all sorts of surveys, looking at a lot of data on this subject. And it turns out that men and women report very, very similar levels of happiness. This is a very quick overview of all the studies that I looked at. That climate plays no role. That if you live in the best climate, in San Diego in the United States, or in the shittiest climate, in Buffalo, New York, you are going to be just as happy in either place.
If you make more than 50,000 bucks a year in the US, any salary increase you’re going to experience will have only a tiny, tiny influence on your overall well-being. Black people are just as happy as white people are. If you’re old or young it doesn’t really make a difference.
If you’re ugly or if you’re really, really good-looking it makes no difference whatsoever. You will adapt to it and get used to it. If you have manageable health problems it doesn’t really matter. Now this does matter. So now the woman on the right is actually much happier than the guy on the left — meaning that, if you have a lot of friends, and you have meaningful friendships, that does make a lot of difference.
As well as being married — you are likely to be much happier than if you are single. A fellow TED speaker, Jonathan Haidt, came up with this beautiful little analogy between the conscious and the unconscious mind. He says that the conscious mind is this tiny rider on this giant elephant, the unconscious. And the rider thinks that he can tell the elephant what to do, but the elephant really has his own ideas. If I look at my own life, I’m born in 1962 in Austria.
If I would have been born a hundred years earlier, the big decisions in my life would have been made for me — meaning I would have stayed in the town that I was born in; I would have very much likely entered the same profession that my dad did; and I would have very much likely married a woman that my mom had selected. I, of course, and all of us, are very much in charge of these big decisions in our lives. We live where we want to be — at least in the West. We become what we really are interested in. We choose our own profession, and we choose our own partners.
And so it’s quite surprising that many of us let our unconscious influence those decisions in ways that we are not quite aware of. If you look at the statistics and you see that the guy called George, when he decides on where he wants to live — is it Florida or North Dakota? — he goes and lives in Georgia. And if you look at a guy called Dennis, when he decides what to become — is it a lawyer, or does he want to become a doctor or a teacher? — best chance is that he wants to become a dentist.
And if Paula decides should she marry Joe or Jack, somehow. Paul sounds the most interesting. And so even if we make those very important decisions for very silly reasons, it remains statistically true that there are more Georges living in Georgia and there are more Dennises becoming dentists and there are more Paulas who are married to Paul than statistically viable.
Now I, of course, thought, “Well this is American data,” and I thought, “Well, those silly Americans. They get influenced by things that they’re not aware of. This is just completely ridiculous.” Then, of course, I looked at my mom and my dad — Karolina and Karl, and grandmom and granddad, Josefine and Josef. So I am looking still for a Stephanie.
I’ll figure something out. If I make this whole thing a little bit more personal and see what makes me happy as a designer, the easiest answer, of course, is do more of the stuff that I like to do and much less of the stuff that I don’t like to do — for which it would be helpful to know what it is that I actually do like to do. I’m a big list maker, so I came up with a list. One of them is to think without pressure. This is a project we’re working on right now with a very healthy deadline.
It’s a book on culture, and, as you can see, culture is rapidly drifting around. Doing things like I’m doing right now — traveling to Cannes. The example I have here is a chair that came out of the year in Bali — clearly influenced by local manufacturing and culture, not being stuck behind a single computer screen all day long and be here and there. Quite consciously, design projects that need an incredible amount of various techniques, just basically to fight straightforward adaptation. Being close to the content — that’s the content really is close to my heart.
This is a bus, or vehicle, for a charity, for an NGO that wants to double the education budget in the United States — carefully designed, so, by two inches, it still clears highway overpasses. Having end results — things that come back from the printer well, like this little business card for an animation company called Sideshow on lenticular foils.
Working on projects that actually have visible impacts, like a book for a deceased German artist whose widow came to us with the requirement to make her late husband famous. It just came out six months ago, and it’s getting unbelievable traction right now in Germany. And I think that his widow is going to be very successful on her quest.
And lately, to be involved in projects where I know about 50 percent of the project technique-wise and the other 50 percent would be new. So in this case, it’s an outside projection for Singapore on these giant Times Square-like screens. And I of course knew stuff, as a designer, about typography, even though we worked with those animals not so successfully. But I didn’t quite know all that much about movement or film. And from that point of view we turned it into a lovely project.
But also because the content was very close. In this case, “Keeping a Diary Supports Personal Development” — I’ve been keeping a diary since I was 12. And I’ve found that it influenced my life and work in a very intriguing way. In this case also because it’s part of one of the many sentiments that we build the whole series on — that all the sentiments originally had come out of the diary. Thank you so much.