Why Jews Are Among World's Happiest People

Stefan Sagmeister Brings a Smile to the Jewish Museum

Happiness Is a Warm Exhibit: Sagmeister & Walsh’s ‘Happy Show,’ now on display at the Jewish Museum New York, features interactive exhibits.
Courtesy of Sagmeister & Walsh
Happiness Is a Warm Exhibit: Sagmeister & Walsh’s ‘Happy Show,’ now on display at the Jewish Museum New York, features interactive exhibits.

By Ellen Shapiro

Published April 12, 2013, issue of April 19, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 3)

Obvious? Corny? It’s all in the execution: five sensuous, looped videos in which the words become floating, bursting, flaming, wiggling, splashing typographical elements including soap bubbles, Jell-O and paint on naked skin. The sixth piece, “Feel Others Feel,” is a floor sculpture in which water, activated by sound waves, ripples inside vacuum-formed white plastic letters.

There are no nicely typeset explanatory cards on the walls here. Each piece is accompanied by Sagmeister’s oft-imitated (in contemporary graphic design and advertising) handwritten text in white paint on black-painted walls. Next to the “Feel Others Feel” piece, for example, is: “Sympathetic empathy is central to most people’s understanding of love and happiness. Nevertheless, I feel I’m not good at it. Everything that happens to me is immediate, while everything that does not happen to me needs to be mediated.”

This explanation is a bit vague, but I think it means something like what Hillel said could be learned while standing on one foot: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”

But Stefan Sagmeister is not Jewish. A New Yorker since 1985, when he won a Fulbright grant to study for his MFA at Pratt Institute, he was born into a Catholic family in Austria in 1962. “I was an altar boy for six years,” he says, “but as a grown-up I’ve always considered myself a reluctant agnostic.”

So what’s the connection? Why a Jewish museum? The impetus was a study by the Gallup Organization, which interviewed 676,000 people for its Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index and reported in February 2012 that Jews, especially religious Jews, are the happiest of all religious groups in America.

Tell that to my Uncle Harry and Aunt Esther. They might have died laughing.

However, the Gallup findings were no joke to the The Jewish Museum’s new director, Claudia Gould, who as director of the Institute for Contemporary Art in Philadelphia organized Sagmeister’s first “Happy Show” there last spring. Gould took all the curators on a pilgrimage to Philadelphia to see it, explained Ruth Beesch, The Jewish Museum’s deputy director for program administration. “We loved it and wanted to do something with him here, but were all trying to figure out the Jewish link. The Gallup findings gave us permission. Stefan was fascinated too.”

Did Sagmeister find the Gallup research findings surprising, or were they in line with his other research about happiness? Or did he suspect that religious people who were brought up believing they were “God’s treasured possession” would naturally identify themselves as happy?

“When Claudia talked about the findings of that survey during the members’ opening, it caused much hilarity in the mostly Jewish audience,” he said. “My interpretation would be that a fixed set of rules is comforting to many people,” he added. “Furthermore, receiving answers to the big questions in life, who made us, why are we here in this world, would give peace of mind. The rituals bring family and friends closer. And the Sabbath seems like a great break from email, cell phones and TV, allowing couples and families to talk.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.