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.
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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.”


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