The Design of Happiness

As engineers, we are trained to quantify the world around us to the extent that such analytical representations of our surroundings emerge comfortably, organically. Engineers quantify to innovate and improve: the structural stability of cantilevered bridges like the recentStonecutters Bridgein Hong Kong; the efficiency of a gas scrubber in a new chemical plant in Louisiana; the aerodynamic efficiency of a turbine in the latest globally accessorized jetliner. These are the quantitative fruits of tangible things, but how might one quantify happiness?

For one answer, we turn to the world of graphic design. One distinguishing nuance between how graphic artists interpret the word “design” versus how an engineer would interpret it rests at the interface between aesthetic purpose and functional execution.

Stefan Sagmeister is a renowned designer whose firm works globally with clients ranging from Portuguese energy companies to international banks and investment firms to Levi’s jeans. While Sagmeister is regarded as an icon among designers, outside the design world he is less known, or as he is famously quoted, “Being a famous graphic designer is like being a famous electrician.” In a recent film project, with the irreverent working title of “The Happy Film,” Sagmeister illustrates how fame through work is not necessarily a prerequisite of his happiness, but that happiness in work and in life results from the context in which each element is nurtured and the time devoted to such nurturing.

Part of the film project covers his firm’s famous commitment to deliberately taking sabbaticals to seek out that elusive happiness. In Sagmeister’s view, one can work until the time for retirement arrives before engaging in “serious” time off, or one can take slivers of those retirement years now, interspersing them with one’s current work. By balancing what constitutes work versus what activities one may engage in one’s traditional non-work activities, he classifies the nature of one’s work into three categories:

Work is a Job:You work for the salary and benefits, but are not otherwise enthusiastic nor attached to the work itself.

Work is a Career:Your work purpose is driven by the acquisition of skills, experience, and industry exposure to a particular field of interest. You find benefit in how the nature of this work may open doors to additional opportunities in other fields, similar or dissimilar to your current role. You make accommodations in your personal life because time spent building the career in the present will lead to some measure of success or happiness in the future.

Work is a Calling:The nature of your work is such that it is integrally a part of how you are defined as in individual. It is something that you feel driven, passionate about—something you “must” do. Financial compensation is less of a factor, if even a factor at all.

In the search for where happiness emerges from these different world views of one’s work, one may find that they are just fundamental variables, all in the same equation.

Where among these areas do engineers place their own work if happiness of the self and of society is one of the measures? TheNSPE Code of Ethicsdeclares engineering as a service and duty to the better the public good, to progress the quality of life within society. Perhaps one output of our work is how it influences the public perception of happiness as a function of safety, reliability, comfort, and quality. When directing this model introspectively, the nuances between a job, a career, or a calling may directly drive how work life and personal life are both reconciled, if reconciliation is needed at all.

Buckminster Fuller uses a term to describe how small nuances can result in large magnitudes of change: trimtab. For Fuller, a trimtab, like a rudder of a ship where small motions in one direction can alter the course of the entire vessel, understanding these nuances between job, career, and calling and knowing which contexts to act within can result in significant ways by which the work is executed. We all go to work. The work gets done. But the happiness rests in “how” the work gets done.

Just like the well-designed sea-faring vessel, functional in operation, high quality in aesthetic purpose, both domains in synchronous harmony, the production of happiness is not a sub-element of the design specification. Happiness is the design specification.

Published March 5, 2012 by Austin Lin

Filed under: career development, design, happiness,

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