“Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
I had originally planned on introducing this review with an explication of the above phrase, pointing out the simple and conclusive nature of “Life” and “Liberty”. I wanted to delve into the contrast between the former two with the latter, more complex portion. “Pursuit” means “striving toward,” which implies that the goal, Happiness, has not yet been or will ever be attained. And so on.
But that kind of scrutiny would be too much. Because we already know the phrase well – it’s as deeply embedded in our modern American lives as it is in the history of the United States Declaration of Independence. It’s a pursuit that we pull out all stops for, a goal that we cry and sigh and die stretching for. Happiness, we wonder, when will you draw near.
In his latest documentary “Happy,” Roko Belic (of the Oscar-nominated “Genghis Blues”) takes on the challenge of pulling back the curtain to happiness, if only just a little. He does so with a series of vignettes from all around the world, using both science and the stories of happy and unhappy individuals and communities of every income bracket and culture. Read a few of their stories for yourself.
Manoj Singh lives in the Kolkata Slum in India. He works as a rickshaw driver, and the documentary follows him as he wades through the hectic, damp streets of India’s marketplaces. “Some passengers abuse us, even those who are drunk. But I never quarrel with them because if I do, then tomorrow they will not ride in my rickshaw.”
Back at his makeshift home, he stands proudly with a smile in his eyes and a small child in his arms. “When I return home in the afternoon my son is at the tea shop and waiting for my return, and when he calls out to me ‘BABA!” I am full of joy. When I see my child’s face I feel very happy. I feel that I am not poor but I am the richest person.”
Bhutan is a small Asian country with a fledgling economy whose government recognized that there is a difference between happiness and riches, and then acted on it. Dasho Kinley Dorji, Bhutan’s Ministry of Information and Communications, says, “What we saw was that, in the pursuit of economic development, people and societies have lost their cultures, their environment, their social systems…humanity was having problems.” That’s why Bhutan said, ‘Okay, this is not enough. GDP is not enough. Humanity needs a higher goal for development, and that is Gross National Happiness. The faster car, the bigger house, the more fashionable clothing—they aren’t going to give you that contentment. They might give you fleeting pleasure but not contentment.”
In Bhutan, we see both sides of the happiness spectrum. After World War II, the entire Japanese workforce was mobilized to rebuild the country’s economy from the ground up. For decades, they emphasized economic growth and material prosperity above all else. Their economic achievements have become the envy of the world, but at a harrowing price. In Japan’s larger cities like Tokyo, people are literally working themselves to death, an occurrence so common that a word has been created for it: karoshi. It’s needless to say that these parts of Japan are at record happiness lows.
And yet, also within Japan’s border, the city of Okinawa has a disproportionate number of the oldest (and quite happy) people in the world. The overall lifestyle of these Okinawans center around farming, spending time with family members, and with sharing tea and stories with peers at community centers.
It is important to note here that “Happy” doesn’t paint an unrealistic picture of happiness. It’s well understood that not all countries can disentangle their economic systems and morph into utopic societies. It’s similarly unreasonable to expect all of the world’s children to welcome tired mothers and fathers home with I love yous and kisses.
That said, there are veins of similarity that trickle through all of the stories portrayed. Economic prosperity and its sparkling glamour seems to fall to the wayside when it comes to sustainable joy. Buildings can crumble and trinkets can lose their shimmer. These things veil happiness – the real kind. These things make you forget.
Here’s the good part: Happiness seems to find its truest footing in hearts, homes, and communities where the individual is allowed to breathe. All of the people portrayed in a happy context were coincidentally filmed outdoors—on a boat, riding horses, skipping rope, cooking dinner over a fire, and even pulling a rickshaw. It thusly seems logical to assume that happiness isn’t simply a matter of existing quietly in a state of contentment. There’s movement—exercise—health—involved in happiness, whether that’s emotional health, physical health, or both. Hopeful, isn’t it? These are things that every one of us can do.
So, to reiterate the instruction “Happy” leaves its viewers with, one must try to develop an overall wellness of being which can in turn nurture and sustain happiness. Need the science? Watch the movie.