‘Happy’ as we choose to be

By Sarah Williamson | gargoyle@flagler.edu

The St. Augustine Film Festival brought us to our “happy” place this past weekend with a film by Roko Belic. “Happy” is an award-winning documentary that brings its audience around the world, trying to figure out the answer to what makes us humans happy.

The idea for this feel good film came from director Tom Shadyac (“Bruce Almighty,” “Liar, Liar”). He became interested in the science of happiness after reading an article in The New York Times about Americans being unhappy, regardless of their wealth. While sitting in his mansion somewhere outside of L.A., he got in contact with Belic and told him his idea for a documentary.

What a great idea it turned out to be.

Belic shows us, through the lives of people in 14 different countries, that happiness is not based on economic circumstance but instead by our simple decision to be happy. Researchers in “Happy” describe circumstances as only accounting for 10 percent of our happiness and intentional behavior as accounting for 40 percent.

The director tells us not only to seek happiness, but to move towards it through our relationships, community, physical activity and love for others.

Manoj Singh works all day as a rickshaw driver inside the slums of Kolkata, India. After 14 hours of work, he returns to his home made entirely from bamboo shoots and plastic bags. He describes his happiness as the moment he walks in the door and sees his son.

Belic portrays family and a strong sense of community as a key to happiness worldwide.

It doesn’t have to be family related by blood. Another community is documented on the island of Okinawa, where the oldest people on the planet reside. The film shows a preschool foot race through town. There is a crowd of grandmothers at the finish line rooting for the children.

When asked, a woman told Belic they had no relation to the children. There are no boundaries to what the family is in Okinawa — they simply love every child as their own.

According to scientists interviewed in the film, physical activity is another influence on our happiness. Exercise creates dopamine in our brain which is a strong hormone believed to generate happiness.

Ronaldo Fadul, a surfer from Brazil, spends his life on the ocean. He has little money and lives in a small shack offshore. He finds himself full of happiness being in nature and exercising on a daily basis.

“Surfing for me is a religion,” Fadul said. You can feel his sense of contentment from the screen as he bows to the ocean after surfing a small swell.

His happiness comes from something psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly describes in the movie as “flow.” He describes flow as “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.”

The dopamine produced in physical activity is also produced in response to positive thoughts towards others. The film found those who volunteer in their communities tend to be more content. A previous investment banker transformed his life and moved to work at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Destitute and Dying. He explains to Belic that it is the most satisfying thing he has ever done.

He tells the audience that the act of giving a dying man a glass of water is enough to get him through another day. It is these small acts that keep him feeling content.

“Happy” gives the audience a moving, cross-cultural view of happiness and also asks its viewers to partake in the journey. According to Belic and many other happiness researchers, it is a decision. Those who decide, well, they tend to be quite happy. ☺

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