Sunday, May 20, 2012

Musings on Stefan Sagmeister The Happy Show, Part II

Stefan Sagmeister is a graphic designer and typographer who is best known for
his album covers for Lou Reed, The Rolling Stones, David Byrne, Aerosmith, and Pat Metheny.  Stefan Sagmeister The Happy Show is an art exhibit at the University of Pennsylvania Institute for Contemporary Art that runs through August 12, 2012.  The exhibit is organized around statements taken from Sagmeister’s diary; we have already in Part I of this blog post encountered one such aphorism:  “Everybody always thinks they are right.”

Near the entrance is a warning:  “This exhibition will not make you happier. Low expectations are a good strategy.”  Danes always rank at the top of any survey of the happiest people on earth, and some attribute this fact to following the low expectations advice. 

Over the past 30 years, in survey after survey, this nation of five and a half million people, the land that produced Hans Christian Andersen, the people who consume herring by the ton, consistently beat the rest of the world in the happiness stakes. It's hard to figure: the weather is only so-so, they are heavy drinkers and smokers, their neighbors, the Norwegians, are richer, and their other neighbors, the Swedes, are healthier. (

In a 60 minutes episode, Professor Kaare Christensen of the University of Southern Denmark stated “Although the Danes were very happy with their life, when we looked at their expectations they were pretty modest." (

Eric Weiner writing in The New York Times describes Happiness equals Reality minus Expectations as a formula where most of us focus on the Reality factor, not the Expectations factor. Danes, unlike most of us, have low expectations and so “year after year they are pleasantly surprised to find out that not everything is rotten in the state of Denmark,” says James W. Vaupel, a demographer who has investigated Danish bliss. (

Fortified by this wise advice and having low expectations, I entered the first room of The Happy Show and encountered the first Sagmeister statement:

It is pretty much impossible to please everybody unless you are Maira Kalman.  Her blog for the New York Times is the only published venture I know that seems to elicit only positive comments.

During my visit to the art museum I did not recognize the name Maira Kalman.  It was only after googling her later at home that I realized I had seen many of her New Yorker covers (  The New York Times website revealed her And the Pursuit of Happiness blog dated December 31, 2009, 9:32 PM.

            Where is happiness?
            What is happiness?
            What did Thomas Jefferson mean?
            The pursuit of happiness.
            I visited Dr. James Watson.
            Maybe there is a genetic explanation for happiness.
            And all we need to do is take a pill
            That puts it into action.
            I asked him.
            He could not tell me because no one really knows.
            And anyway, everyone has to be sad part of the time;
            Otherwise you would be insane.
            I looked at him.
            He takes walks. Plays tennis.
            He works.
            He looks at trees.
            These are good ways to find happiness.
            To find peace of mind.
            Me? I work and walk.
            And go to museums.

After hearing David Eddy, MD, PhD, deliver a provocative lecture that challenged the conventional wisdom of evidence based medicine experts, I wrote the following in a blog post extolling those who do not strive to please everyone:

Eddy gives those of us in the evidence-based medicine world a lot to think about.  By making us at ICSI question how we develop guidelines, he is challenging us to make sure that we stay on the cutting edge.  He is also proving the point made by Tim Ferriss in a recent blog entitled “The Benefits of Pissing People Off” (

Ferriss references a Scott Boras mentor saying, “If you are really effective at what you do, 95% of the things said about you will be negative. Keep your head on straight, don’t get emotional, take the heat, and just make sure your clients are smiling.”

Colin Powell on leadership makes a similar point: “Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity: you’ll avoid the tough decisions, you’ll avoid confronting the people who need to be confronted, and you’ll avoid offering differential rewards based on differential performance because some people might get upset. Ironically, by procrastinating on the difficult choices, by not trying to get anyone mad, and by treating everyone equally ‘nicely’ regardless of their contributions, you’ll simply ensure that the only people you’ll wind up angering are the most creative and productive people in the organization.”

The next organizing quotation from Sagmeister’s diary was “Having guts always works out for me.”  This installation featured 12 minutes of an uncompleted film where Sagmeister forces himself to do things that do not come naturally to him.  He tries to give away a flower to a stranger, and he attempts to obtain the phone number of a woman he meets on the street.  He describes the uncomfortable butterflies that he feels in his stomach as he attempts to be gutsier, and he concludes they are necessary to force oneself to grow. 

When I mounted a stationary bicycle and pushed the pedals hard enough I created enough electricity to light up a huge neon sign in the museum gallery. (   I could not ride the bicycle and take notes at the same time, but the writing on the wall next to the neon sign stated:

Every single time I think I should do this or I should try 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’m also missing out on the satisfying feeling that comes with completion of a project.

Obviously, the Nike slogan “just do it” came to mind, but I also thought immediately about how Martin Seligman has expanded his definition of happiness in his new book Flourish.  Seligman, who teaches at University of Pennsylvania, identifies five elements of well-being, each of which exhibit the following properties:  the element contributes to well-being; people pursue the element for its own sake; the element is well defined and measured independently of the other elements. Seligman recommends the mnemonic PERMA to remember the five elements of well-being:  positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning, and accomplishment.  I was surprised that Seligman was not mentioned anywhere in The Happy Show; maybe I just missed the reference to him.    

Part III of this blog will continue our visit to Stefan Sagmeister The Happy Show.

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