This weekend I watched the documentary Happy.
Released in 2011, Happy was apparently quite popular, but I hadn’t heard of it until it appeared in my Netflix recommended feed (part of me still finds it incredible that Netflix figured out that a guy that writes a blog called, “The Happiest Man in the World,” would be interested in the Happy documentary).
The film interviews a slew of experts in Happiness, mostly Ph.D.’s in psychology, as well as happy people from around the world. The movie’s big theme is that people can work on being happy, and that the things that we generally pursue in the developed world are not those that will lead to happiness.
Right off the bat, Happy hits us with some hard numbers. According to one of the experts in the movie, 50% of our happiness is genetically pre-determined. This gives us our set point for happiness. Another 10% is influenced by circumstance, such as wealth and other external factors. The last 40% is influenced strictly by internal controllable factors.
In other words, it is possible for humans to work towards being happy without changing their circumstance. Further, by improving this state of happiness, it is easier to impact our external circumstances, because happier people are more likely to do well in life.
By way of proof, the documentary offers up a study that show that families in the slums of Calcutta have the same general level of happiness as Americans.
What Doesn’t Work
Just as most literature on happiness suggests, the documentary points out that chasing external factors such as status, wealth, and fame does not contribute to long-term happiness. Instead, it leads to an ever-growing need for more of these items. This “treadmill” effect leads to unhappier people, because they will never be satisfied.
In some cases, as in Japan, this obsession becomes dangerous as people literally work themselves to death pursuing these goals.
What Does Work
According to Happy, there are a few things that people can focus on to improve their general level of happiness.
1. Relationships and Family
Pretty much every “happy” person featured in the documentary had strong family ties. Whether it was the Blanchards in the Bayou of Louisianna eating meals of crab amongst their 20 person family, or the rickshaw driver in the slums of Calcutta that regardless of how wet or hot a day, or how abusive his clients, he was still happy to come home to his young son, and see his community that helps each other out.
2. Physical Activity
Physical activity doesn’t lead directly to happiness, but it appears to be a way to keep the brain in shape. Neuroscientists suggest that the chemical reactions in the brain that cause us to be happy are reliant on dopamine receptors. As we age, these dopamine receptors start to malfunction, or stop functioning altogether, and so there is a risk that as we get older, our brain re-wires itself to be less happy. Physical activity, however, has shown to decrease the effects of aging on our brain, and allows us to keep the dopamine flowing.
3. Cultivating a Sense of Awe
One of the people featured in the movie is a Brazilian surfer, who treats surfing with a religious zeal. The feel of catching a wave is transcendent. Similarly, Ray Blanchard, the Louisianna Bayou resident who works as a guide of the swamps is happy to say that on any given day, he has no idea what he’ll see, but he’ll see something. A man who has lived in the same place all his life, sees something new everyday. How awesome is that?
4. Serving the Community
The last thing that happy people seem to have in common according to the Happy documentary is that they have a purpose and they serve the community. How closely this is related to the earlier point about relationships is unclear, but the higher purpose of serving the community comes back as a good replacement for the status treadmill. The former allows one a sense of fulfillment, while the latter leaves one always wanting more, and as a result never feeling fulfilled.
If you have 75 minutes to spare, I do suggest watching Happy. What you’ll see is an inspiring portrait of some beautiful individuals and you’ll want to start working on your own happiness. However, what you won’t come away with is a game plan as to how to do that. Sure, you’ll have the broad strokes of what will and won’t bring you happiness that I’ve outlined above. However, short of quitting your job and moving to India to tend to the dying, or to Brazil to surf every day, how to accomplish this isn’t exactly clear.
I don’t think the goal of the documentary was ever to lay out a game plan for achieving happiness, but rather to be a manifesto that this is a topic that needs to be taken more seriously. Further, the fact that this was released three years ago suggests to me that we’ve come a long way in the past three years. I feel like many of the things that were presented as earth-shattering discoveries in Happy are now common sense.
That said, I still think it’s worth the short amount of time it takes to watch the documentary, even if only to recharge your motivation and inspiration.