The Happy Film

On a sunny and cheery Tuesday evening in July, we excitedly gathered at the Arnolfini for the screening of The Happy Film, a documentary that sees graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister (of Sagmeister & Walsh) making a film about his own happiness. 

The documentary takes us on Stefan’s journey of experimenting with three different mind-altering methods, to see what kind of effect they would have on his wellbeing – first meditation, followed by therapy, and finally and most controversially, anti-depressant medication. 

Optimistically, Stefan intended for the experiment to last a year and a half. Seven years later, The Happy Film is finally being screened, full and finished, with our WEDF event being a coveted pin on its world tour map. Happy days indeed.

Some of us have been lucky enough to catch Stefan at various design festivals over the years where he has previously talked about The Happy Film, but only ever showing tantalising snippets of the title sequence, or clips of the beautiful typographic illustrations that feature throughout the full length film. I assumed that is was pretty much completed, only to find out at our WEDF screening that these teaser’ talks actually helped fundraise for the film, enabling him to continue filming and eventually complete it. Keeping up? Good. 

The documentary walks us through the three different methods for finding happiness and their effects, each experiment supposedly lasting for three months each (they always ran over!). Stefan’s happiness level was measured’ before and after each phase, visibly shown with a glass being filled with water, playing on the glass half empty/​glass half full metaphor. Nice touch.

Photograph: Katy McDonnell

Throughout the film we see graphically beautiful quotes and statements illustrated in over the top, labour intensive but oh-so-amazing styles that Sagmeister and Walsh are famous for. From exploding water balloons captured magnificently in slow motion, to typographic interpretive dance (who knew), statements like be more gutsy’ and if I don’t ask, I don’t get’ played out after each phase to depict what Stefan had learned along the way. 

I won’t give any more away about the film, as I’d encourage everyone to watch it, plus the fact that it was far too dark in the screening to jot down any notes that made any sense. But Stefan’s journey, relationships and realisations throughout his happiness project are maybe not so much happy ones, but definitely emotional, with Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist, saying that the more correct way to think about happiness is having the right kind of relationships”, with maybe there being no coincidence that, as Stefan moved through the three methods of finding happiness, he also encountered three incredibly close relationships. As human beings we strive for companionship, and happiness can be found through being open to, and therefore having, better relationships with the people around us. 

As Stefan himself stated at the end of the documentary, a film that started as a graphic design project about Happiness, ended up being all about Stefan. But I suppose that is to be expected when you are trying to make a film about something that is so personal and individual to each and every one of us. And I think we all came away maybe not feeling overly happy, (I for one shed a tear during the screening) but definitely reflecting on what makes us happy, and our own relationships with the people in our lives. I also think we can all resonate with striving to be part of something bigger than us (another method to being happy, which Stefan intends to explore next, as well as making another documentary…) and that is, I feel, a big part of what being a graphic designer is all about.

To those who are yet to see The Happy Film, enjoy, grab the popcorn and a box of tissues if you err on the emotional side of things and make sure you watch the film until the end. Those end credits, wow!