Living the Good Life: Valerie Steele and Stefan Sagmeister on Happiness

The FIT Museum director and graphic designer discuss childbearing, Céline dresses, luxury hotels, and more, questioning what we're all searching for (and why).

FIT Museum director and curator Dr. Valerie Steele talks happiness with graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister, whose documentary, The Happy Film, debuted in 2016. This article was originally published in the March 2016 issue of Surface.

Valerie Steele: How do you view happiness?

Stefan Sagmeister: Three ways. One short one is bliss—an extraordinary moment, maybe an orgasm. Then there’s mid-length happiness, which is satisfaction or wellbeing, like if you’re on the couch with The New York Times on a Sunday afternoon and things are just right. Then there’s super-long-term happiness: finding that thing in life you’re good for or at, fulfilling your potential. All three of those things fall under the same term—happiness—but are totally different from each other. The orgasm has nothing to do with finding what you’re good for in life, and I think that’s why the term is so difficult to handle.

Steele: Of course. The first one is really about sensual pleasure. I remember once I saw a kimono that had belonged to a kabuki actor, and on the back it had characters that read “Long Live Pleasure”—with the subtext of sensual pleasure. I thought, “What a great thing for a tattoo!” It’s literally saying “Pleasure for Ten Thousand Years,” taking a short thing like bliss and stretching it out.

Sagmeister: I wonder how that went for that kabuki actor.

Steele: What a great—but impossible—slogan to live by. There’s also that old Aristotelian phrase “Living the good life is happiness.” Sort of in between, for me, is the happiness of flow, which is when you’re working on something and you’ve lost yourself it in. Which is so weird, because most people think of work as being labor. Yet when you’re working on a creative project and it’s going well, you don’t even notice that hours pass because you’re in the flow.

Sagmeister: I find that flow is the exact reason why so many people find computer games so compelling.

Steele: Probably so.

Sagmeister: Because of the different levels in a video game, you’re always working, by definition, at the edge of your abilities. You’re at the level in which you’re just at the edge. I last played computer games a very long time ago, but it was true for me, too—that you’d find yourself playing at 3 o’clock in the morning.

Steele: Yes, and if it was too easy, you’d find yourself bored and quit, and if it was too hard, you’d be annoyed and quit. It’s about finding that perfect spot in between, where you’re both challenged and excited.

Sagmeister: That definitely happens to me at work, but there’s so much other stuff to be taken care of that I can’t say it’s a daily occurrence.

Steele: Exactly. People always say to me, “You have the best job!” I’m like, “Really? Do you think I really spend all my time in the closet, looking at dresses, and setting up shows?” That would be the best job. But most of the time it’s HR, fundraising, and going to horrible Monday meetings. Where would you put something like shopping in this conversation of happiness? When asked “what are your hobbies?” a lot of people say, “I like to shop.” It’s a kind of pleasure-seeking, I guess.

Sagmeister: It’s definitely a seeking. Growing up [in Bregenz, Austria], my parents had a clothing store, which both of my brothers took over—one is doing men’s, one is doing women’s. They’re reporting that on the female side, but also increasingly on the male side, people shop because they want to increase their wellbeing.

Steele: Does that actually work?

Sagmeister: Research shows that if you’re making $85,000 or so a year in the U.S., making more makes no difference. Basically you’re topping out. If you have no money and then start making more, up to that amount the curb does go up a lot. Beyond that, most people trade: Yes, you cannot afford that Céline dress, but then there’s that shitty cousin always asking for money. As far as spending money is concerned, research shows that if you’re spending it on experiences it’s better than if you’re spending it on goods. The reason for that is that most people spend it on experiences that are non-repetitive. In contrast, the goods you buy create a peak, but then you get used to them and they don’t produce that feeling anymore.

Steele: This idea that your happiness [from making money] flat lines—it sort of depends, too, on your acquaintances. Because if you can buy the Céline dress, which would be taking up about 10 percent of your $85,000, what if all of your friends have $300,000, they’re buying lots of things, and your Céline dress is supposed to last you the whole season or year? I do notice people can get that momentary endorphin rush buying a piece of clothing, but by the time they’ve got it home, this feeling is fading, and by the time they’ve worn it once, it’s gone. Which is an incredibly discouraging thought.

Sagmeister: There are a number of studies out there that say if you’re going to spend money in the hopes that at the end of the day you’re going to feel better, the best strategy is to spend it on other people.

Steele: People say that all the time. No one acts on it, though. No one buys me Céline dresses. [Laughs] It’s true that a lot of people say they’d rather spend money on a great trip than another object. But studies show that trips can be frustrating and disappointing. In a way, the fun is often planning for the trip, and looking back on the trip, more than the trip itself. Which is another strange thing. I don’t find that true, although trips can be up and down.

Sagmeister: I got the chance to talk to Daniel Kahneman, who’s an economist but also worked in the world of social studies and happiness. He told me that he doesn’t take any studies seriously anymore that don’t differentiate between “in-the-moment happiness” and “on-reflection happiness.” The second one has much more to do with meaning. For example, in studies, if you ask women “what’s the best thing you’ve ever done in your life?” childbearing is always No. 1. When meaning comes into play, they’re completely satisfied they did that, but in the moment it was awful.

Steele: Exactly. Changing diapers wasn’t fun. Neither was the screaming baby. But looking back, you go, “Oh, that was so cute. That was so wonderful.”

Sagmeister: Kahneman realized that both in-the-moment happiness and on-reflection happiness are important. It’s not that one is not fake or not real. It’s just one is connected to “what was worthwhile to do?” while the other one is temporary.

Steele: In fashion, it’s not so much a happiness of consuming as it is of creating. Very little seems to have been done in terms of work on how creation works for not just the individual fashion designer—Chanel the genius, McQueen the genius—but the matrix of creativity around them that makes for that peak flow of experience, when something really great happens. Have you heard anything interesting done on that?

Sagmeister: The overall conclusion from “The Happy Show” exhibition and The Happy Film movie we’ve done, after having been involved in that world for 10 years now, would be that by and large I would have to find good relationships between myself and others—it can be a lot of others or just a few; a relationship between me and my work; and then a relationship between me and something that’s larger than myself—for many people that’s religion, but for me it’s not. When it comes to the work part, the best thing I’ve heard—and this is certainly the case for me—is that my work works when I feel it can utterly delight and help other people. An example is that I just saw the “Jean-Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” show in Munich. I have to admit that I was never a fan of his work, but I found some of the pieces in that show were so clearly delightful. Whether you were into that or not, you could feel how delighted people were just looking at that stuff. I’m sure that the people from the designer down to the embroiderers—people who spent tens of thousands of hours working on these—found these projects to be satisfying. If you create something that has lasting possibilities, it actually keeps paying the entire team. Some of the pieces in the show were 25 years old, but they still get accolades now.

Steele: It’s interesting when you think of someone like Gaultier, who seems to have been a fairly happy, well-adjusted person, as opposed to someone like McQueen, who was very much a tortured, dark individual. Yet if you look at this book by my friend Anne Deniau, Love Looks Not With the Eyes—she worked with McQueen for years—you have images not just of the shows, but of McQueen working with all these different people. You get that the collective project was really engrossing and deeply meaningful. It’s the idea of flow. You see more pictures of him smiling and happy when he’s in the process of creation. Clearly, what he got out of the experience with his team was really meaningful and life enhancing. McQueen said that working with Givenchy on the whole was negative, but his experience with the couture atelier there was fantastic. He said that what he learned from all of the craftspeople there was incomparable and raised what he did to a whole new level.

Sagmeister: I agree with that. It’s strange. I wouldn’t compare anything we do at my studio to what Mr. McQueen did, but we just finished The Happy Film after six years—we’ve done just a few friends-and-family screenings—and what I’ve heard back a lot was that even though the entire trajectory of the film was basically me seeing if I could make myself happier, people commented many times that the only time I actually looked decently satisfied in the film was when I was working.

Steele: Yes! [Laughs] I think that’s really true. A friend of mine from college just came back into my life, and we’ve been catching up on decades. She asked me, “What are you most proud of and satisfied with what you’re doing?” I said, “It’s that I’ve put together a really great team at the museum.” When we work together on an exhibition, it’s really a joy. When there’s a show we’re really captivated by—like “Gothic: Dark Glamour” [in 2008] or the Daphne Guinness show [in 2011]—everybody’s really pumped and working together at a very exciting level. It’s like being high. You’re all throwing ideas forward.

Sagmeister: Change helps a lot. Getting bored or even just adapting to how things are is an incredible drag on everybody’s well-being. So the possibility to go down different avenues or try new stuff out—or, in our case, to just get out from behind the screen and do something by hand or do a photo shoot or build something outside—is captivating. Just yesterday three of us from my studio were in the freezing cold, on the West Side Highway, for a two-hour shoot. That time not behind a screen put back a little spring in our step.

Steele: Change really is the best, even if you’re just moving from one kind of work to another. This makes me think that if buying things for yourself isn’t the happiness-inducing thing we tend to believe it to be, nevertheless that could presumably be modified if you improve the experience of it. For example, I know a lot of luxury stores talk about making it more “experiential”—welcoming, luxurious, something. Alternatively, there’s the idea that if you’re there with a friend and it becomes a relationship thing between you and friend, as opposed to just wandering through a department store being snubbed by clerks, it’s a more of a happy-making experience. Realistically, what do you think retailers can do to make the experience of shopping more interesting—apart from the fact that certain kinds of shopping are inherently more pleasurable? Shoe shopping is like the highest form of shopping: You’re never too old, you’re never too fat, the shoes are beautiful. Versus, say, bathingsuit shopping, which can be deeply humiliating and depressing.

Sagmeister: I use the term “experience in design” very carefully. We now have the “experience designer,” and everyone who’s designing a stupid website now thinks they’re designing an experience.

Steele: It’s become a total cliché.

Sagmeister: For me, I have an experience when I go to a rock concert—that’s a designed experience. Some people talk about unwrapping an iPhone as an experience because the packaging is so well done.

Steele: You mean so frustrating? [Laughs]

Sagmeister: I think it’s actually not so frustrating. But I use this “experience in design” term very carefully in that commercial world. It’s the same with people who talk about the importance of storytelling.

Steele: Right. These ideas become so banal.

Sagmeister: These people all say they’re thinking outside of the box, but of course none of them are. I think research would back it up that an experience—specifically a non-repetitive experience—would be more efficient in yielding a higher-wellbeing possibility than the material goods we buy. I think the designing of the experience has some inherent difficulties, one of them being that it’s a commercial experience. Most of us become very suspicious immediately from the commercial world, because they clearly want something from us.

Steele: Even children can suss that out.

Sagmeister: It will always highly depend on the people in the store delivering an experience. Yes, so you could have a relationship with a person, which could be for better or for worse. My favorite bad experience was when I went to a very exclusive lingerie shop in Paris that my friend had urged me to go to. This lingerie is very expensive, but I was prepared to go for it. The saleswoman said to me, “You are flat and fat, and it’s impossible to fit a bra on you.” I was gobsmacked. This took Parisian rudeness beyond anything I had ever experienced in my life. [Laughs] I was like, “Really?! I was willing to pay many, many euros.” The experience was highly unpleasant, and I fled.One thing I noticed is that if a certain amount of serendipity is built into the shopping experience—which is maybe harder to hire a designer to do—that can be very exciting. I think it’s why so many people like flea markets: You never know what you’ll find. You can spend hours quite happily cruising through flea markets because somewhere in all that trash there may be a treasure you wouldn’t find somewhere else.

Sagmeister: That’s true if I go for anything that’s luxurious. If I’m in a fantastic hotel, I’m super-happy the first day; second day, pretty good; third day, I start to notice the inconsistencies: “That grout in the bathroom could have been cleaned!” I know certain people like it, but I would hate to live in a hotel for a month. The experience is too repetitive.

Steele: Also, the experience in a lot of luxury hotels is too homogenized. I remember once leading a tour group through Indonesia, and we stayed at five-star hotels. The minute they left, I got into a pedicab, and said, “Take me to little hotels.” We finally found a hotel that was $10 a night. It was really basic—a glass of orange juice at the five-star hotel cost more than a night at this place—but every evening all these women selling batik would come, I’d squat down on the ground with them, choosing which sarong to buy. That was such a more pleasurable way to experience the city.

Sagmeister: There was a now-deceased Australian painter who lived for a long time in Bali—

Steele: Yes, yes, yes—Donald Friend! I’ve read his diaries.

Sagmeister: In one of his diaries, he wrote, “Luxury hotels are built for rich people to make sure they have absolutely no new experience.”

Steele: Yes! No new experience! Because, clearly, a lot of them are scared by anything that’s new or different. Which is a shocking thing.

Sagmeister: Why have you read Donald Friend’s diaries?

Steele: Partly because he spent a lot of time in Southeast Asia, so I was interested in what he had to say about it. He spent time in Sri Lanka, too. That was another thing: One of his friends there was the architect Geoffrey Bawa, who invented the idea for indoor-outdoor hotel spaces. Before I went to Sri Lanka a few years ago, I did some research on him and found out that you could visit the home he lived in. You couldn’t touch anything except in your bedroom and you could use the bathroom. So we stayed there and then at a hotel he designed. We then stayed at his other hotels. That was a whole experience, learning about Geoffrey Bawa and what he did.

Sagmeister: How do you think this idea of personal connection is related to fashion?

Steele: It seems to be obvious that if you like and admire the designer, you’re making some kind of indirect connection with him or her when you’re buying something. You’re saying you have similar tastes. You’re saying, “I am a Rick Owens kind of person.” Which is, I think, more meaningful. In that way, the more you know about a particular designer’s work, the more meaningful it would be, and the less likely you’d become bored with it, because it would fit into a larger picture: “This was really unusual when Rick did this particular thing in this collection.”

Sagmeister: The same would be true of contemporary art, opera, or whatever. Things just tend to become more meaningful if you’re more involved and know more about it.

Steele: Or if you know the designer, or have met the designer, that adds something else. I’ve seen that with people who like fashion but are not professionally part of the fashion world: They like to meet the designer or the photographer or the stylist because that provides some kind of personal link in some way or the other.

Sagmeister: You see this in the art world: Serious collectors would much rather meet the artist than just hang out in the gallery.

Steele: Although some collectors don’t want to meet the artist for fear of being disappointed. Which is a really interesting phenomenon. And some artists are a little nervous that they won’t live up to what the collector wants.

Sagmeister: One of my favorite graphic designers—a guy who created probably more great album covers than anybody else in history—turned out to be a total asshole.

Steele: Which is so deeply disappointing. You can never look at their work the same way again.

Sagmeister: I’m not sure. I still think he’s the greatest who ever lived. But maybe that’s different in fashion, when things are so close to your skin.

Steele: I don’t think so. I mean, Chanel was a perfectly horrible human being, but she was also a great designer. Same with art. Picasso was a nightmare, but you don’t write him off by saying, “Well, he was so mean to his wives.” I remember—in terms of meeting people—Daphne Guinness telling me that Isabella Blow kept trying to introduce her to Alexander McQueen. She was like, “I don’t need to meet him; I like his work.” Then, one day in London, wearing one of his dresses, all of a sudden she hears a voice saying, “Oy! You’re the one who didn’t want to meet me!” It was McQueen. The two then went off, had tea, and became friends. It was interesting that she felt no need to meet him, but then it actually worked out very serendipitously. I wonder if serendipity is an important—although obviously unplanned— aspect of happiness. It’s the unexpected good luck of something just happening.

Sagmeister: High expectations ruin a lot of experiences. In the simplest terms, if I have 10 friends who say “you have to see that film!” the chances that I’m going to be disappointed are much higher. But on a more serious level, I think the reason why so many of us find it difficult to find long-term relationships is just incredibly high expectations. If I look at the marriage my parents had—they were basically married off by the mom of my dad in a semi-arranged kind of deal—there expectations were zero. They were married off, and whatever came, came. In my own case, I’m like, “She better be fantastic, she better be beautiful, she better be funny and witty …”

Steele: I think that’s endemic in New York: Everyone here has high expectations in what they want in a partner and a job, and they’re disappointed constantly.


Sagmeister: The sad part of it is the fact that even though I’m totally aware of how stupid it is—and totally aware that if that woman were in fact to exist she would definitely not take me—it doesn’t make a difference. I can’t artificially lower my expectations, because they’re part of my subconscious. They’re not easily changeable just by thinking about it.

Steele: What about this idea of happiness being genetic? I don’t know how they prove it, but studies have indicated this. Since so much else about us seems to be genetic, it seems like an obvious one.

Sagmeister: There have been 600 or 700 couples of same-egg twins around the world that have been separated at birth. These are every psychologist’s favorite study subjects. And these studies have shown that, yes, it’s very much genetically programmed. Most psychologists think happiness is about half genetics. There are also great studies at Harvard by Daniel Gilbert that show these big events we think change our lives really don’t. With a couple of exceptions, we by and large overestimate how much the good stuff and the bad play a role.

Steele: There’s a lot that’s been said about how you can have a certain control over your happiness. That’s what I don’t understand: What can you actually do to improve your happiness level?

Sagmeister: That’s basically the backbone of The Happy Film. In the beginning, I’d met many scientists and read many books. The research psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who now teaches at NYU, I felt closest to. He’s a scientist, but also talks about life as a whole, not just some specialty. In a book, he comes straight out and says, “If you’re interested in improving your wellbeing efficiently, here are the three strategies I find work the best: meditation, cognitive therapy, and drugs.” I thought, “Fantastic!” I called him up, we had some conversations, and he agreed to become the scientific supervisor of the film. I tried all three out, three months each. Much stuff happened that I’ll leave for the film to show. I didn’t obviously do these experiments in a vacuum. My life continued and was seriously altered by them, namely that I managed to fall in love every single time.

Steele: Which must have moved the endorphins up, but then put you on this rollercoaster of emotions.

Sagmeister: Very true. Looking back at the experiments themselves, I would definitely do meditation again. Cognitive therapy, I actually understood very deeply that it works: It was a comforting feeling just to go forward, almost as an insurance policy, knowing that I can actually change certain aspects of myself. I think cognitive therapy is an efficient way to change. I don’t have to say, “That’s how I am; take it or leave it.” The third one, drugs, is the easiest. My expectations were low. These were antianxiety drugs that I took, like Lexapro, which is in the family of Prozac. But it actually did make a difference. I could actually see, at one time or another, going back on that, but I haven’t since. And of course it’s the easiest: All you have to do is take a pill.

Steele: I’m the Princess of Prozac. It changed my life. It was great. People ask, “Doesn’t it make you not creative?” and I say, “No, it just puts a floor under you, so you’re not just at your desk sobbing over nothing. Instead, it’s okay. You can move onward and upward.”

Sagmeister: Before I started the film, I had— like many Europeans do—a fairly critical view of serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Now I don’t. I think that if a friend of mine has low blood pressure, I’d say to take some-thing that regulates your blood pressure, and just the same, if you have low levels of serotonin, take something that raises them. Nobody really knows why or how the drugs work. Recently, I know that France approved a drug that does the opposite: It’s a serotonin reuptake enhancer.

Steele: Is that for people who are manic?

Sagmeister: It’s for the same group of people.

Steele: These drugs are like acupuncture. Like, why does it work?

Sagmeister: It’s about changing serotonin levels, but it’s kind of a mass experiment.

Steele: I wonder if they’ve done tests with twins about whether they have similar tastes—not just in clothes but in general. More and more, I’ve come to believe that what moves fashion is the evolution of taste—certainly much more than commercial things, but also even more than socioeconomic changes.

Sagmeister: I don’t know about taste in fashion, but I do know about taste in food. There was a fantastic pairing I went to at the Rubin Museum between a French chocolatier and a neuroscientist. The chocolatier was going on and on about how the French unfairly make fun of American chocolate: They hate Hershey’s just because they haven’t grown up with it. The neuroscientist interrupted him and said, “You’re completely right. Taste in food is 80 percent nurtured, while taste in partners—like who you love—is 80 percent DNA.”

Steele: That’s fascinating! This would be the real question: Is taste in clothing more like taste in partners—since your clothes are so much a part of you—or more like taste in food?

Sagmeister: I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a study on that. But they could definitely do it with those same-egg twins that grew up differently.

Steele: We need to put this in the ears of a scientist: Are the clothes, art, and design we like more like food or more like lovers?

Sagmeister: I’m excited by this. Actually, once my studio is done with our happiness project, we’re starting one on beauty. This of course would play very much into it. I have gotten close to a serious scientific team on aesthetics working in psychology, and they’re willing to do research for us. I think this would be a very good question for them.

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