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Features

DOCUMENTING HAPPINESS

A Look at Global Happiness with Documentarian ROKO BELIC

By Meaghan Coffey

June 2012

The pursuit of happiness is one that is undeniably considered paramount by us humans. From the moment we found ourselves to be rational and intelligent beings and quit the hunting and gathering business for the relatively contemplative life, we have figured that merely surviving, reproducing, and physically thriving isn’t enough to sustain a productive and satisfying existence. Therefore, the idea of happiness and how to achieve it is one that has been dissected—it fills entire shelves in Barnes & Noble, and scrolls of the greatest philosophers. It has recently found it’s way onto the big screen in the form of autobiographies like Eat Pray Love. It’s safe to say there is no shortage of information on how others tell us we must live our lives in order to experience that elusive state of existence. Now, it’s available for us to consider in Roko Belic’s documentary, appropriately titled HAPPY.

There’s a refreshing change in this work, as it proposes there is no right way to get at it. It offers some hard, scientific facts, but cushions the statistics with moving stories of people scattered across the globe explaining their days. It peeks into a wide range of methods, from cultural customs that cultivate a healthy lifestyle to personal triumphs over obstacles that leads to a greater, purer happiness than ever before. It shows happiness both despite adversity and because of it. It’s refreshing to see such a wealth of smiles packed into one movie, and still without the pressure to live as they do, but more to apply the general themes to our own lives. So I checked in with Belic to see how this collection of stories and collage of happy people came together.

Meaghan Coffey: What inspired you to choose the topic of happiness for a documentary?

Roko Belic: Six years ago my friend Tom Shadyac called and said he’d read an article about happiness. It essentially said that America is a very rich country but not a very happy one. Tom is a very successful film director of blockbuster Hollywood comedies like Bruce Almighty, Liar Liar, and The Nutty Professor, and he has made tens of millions of dollars. But he said that for years he had been noticing that his gardeners and housekeepers were happier than many of his millionaire movie star friends and colleagues. He said he knew what didn’t make us happy and he wanted to know what did, so he suggested we explore the true causes of happiness in a documentary film. It sounded like a great idea to me and I immediately said “Yes!”

MC: How did you find your subjects? Did you travel to interesting locations–like Okinawa or Namibia or the co-housing community in Denmark–and find people organically, or did you seek them out beforehand? For instance, I’m dying to know if Melissa Moody’s husband’s name (Happy) was just a happy coincidence.

RB: We found the subjects in HAPPY in a variety of ways. The scientists we found by reading their research and books. The other characters we found by reading articles, searching on the internet, and asking friends. One day I met a friend of a friend for lunch because he was writing a book on optimism, and happiness and optimism go hand in hand. At the end of our lunch he said that he had to interview somebody for his book, and maybe I should join him. For the next couple hours I heard Melissa Moody telling her story, and immediately knew I would ask her to be in our film. Her husband’s name, Happy, was fantastic coincidence.

Another time I received an email from a stranger who knew that we were making a film on happiness. She wrote that she’d won a competition photographing happiness in The South. I asked her who she photographed and a couple months later I was floating down the bayou with Roy Blanchard and eating crabs with his family.

In some locations we found people when we got there (Denmark, Okinawa, Kolkata slum) and in others we knew beforehand who we would interview (Brazil, Tokyo, Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying and Destitute in Kolkata).

MC: The film also focuses on the science of happiness–influence of dopamine levels, whether happiness is genetic to a certain degree, how much is dependent on intentional activity or circumstance. Did your research on this topic surprise you? Maybe how much influence physical activity has on one’s happiness, given the extent to which many of us dread the trip to the gym?

RB: The research did surprise me. I was amazed to learn about how little our experiences affect our happiness and how much impact we can consciously have on our happiness. Shifting our values to be more intrinsically oriented (prioritizing compassion, cooperation, wanting to make the world a better place, and personal growth) can have a hugely positive impact on our happiness. I was also very surprised to find out how beneficial physical aerobic exercise can be. It maintains our dopamine systems and generally brightens our mood, sometimes more effectively than anti-depressant medications. One hopeful aspect of exercise is that it doesn’t have to happen at the gym if you don’t like the gym. It can happen while dancing, walking, and doing all sorts of other fun activities.

MC: Are you still in touch with the people you featured? What did they think of the film (if they’ve seen it)? The people you interviewed were, for the most part, very sure of their way of life and how to ‘achieve’ happiness, so I’m wondering what they thought of the other lifestyles you presented throughout the film.

RB: We are in touch with many of the people from the film, though not all have seen it yet. So far there has been a hugely positive response to the film.

MC: What can someone reading this interview do right this very minute to make themselves happier? Besides watching HAPPY, of course…

RB: To become almost instantly happier try the following: thank someone for something they have done. This can happen face to face or through a letter or even an email. Studies show that gratitude increases happiness. Another option is to do something kind. Find someone who can use some help and help them, whether they are family, a friend or a stranger. Kindness increases happiness.

MC: I have to ask… did making this documentary make you happy?

RB: Making this film did make me happier. I moved to a new city to be closer to friends after learning about the importance of relationships on happiness. I specifically moved to a mobile home park because of the community there–a community I was seeking after learning about the benefits of living in a close knit community. The community is near the beach so I could start surfing again. For over ten years I had considered surfing a basically useless activity that, though fun, was meaningless and would only take me away from more important things. After meeting some of the scientists who appear in HAPPY I re-evaluated my life and made changes in accordance with the research–and the result is that I am happier than before.

Roko Belic is a director, producer, and cinematographer. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his 1999 directorial debut, Genghis Blues.

LINKS:

HAPPY

Roko Belic interviewed by Meaghan Coffey

Written and Edited by Meaghan Coffey

Photography and Film Stills © Happy Film 2011 & Courtesy of Roko Belic

Design by Marie Havens

Captions:

Pages 1-4:

Photography and Film Stills © Happy Film 2011 & Courtesy of Roko Belic

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