In 2005 Roko Belic found himself Intrigued by a New York Times report that showed the United States was 23rd on a list of the happiest countries in the world in spite of our standard of living being the highest. Jolted by the statistic he decided to find out why. The young Sundance award-winning director set out on a journey around the globe to explore the reasons, worldwide, that people are happy, and to make a movie about what he found. His 2011 documentary, ‘Happy,’ presents his answers.
He and his crew took four years to find them. They visited 14 countries, including India, Africa, Brazil, Denmark, China, Scotland and Japan, to explore the reasons people are happy. He interviewed a poor rickshaw puller in India, an American beauty queen disfigured by a freak accident, an aging Brazilian surfer, the Dalai Lama himself and many others. All offered perspective on how happiness is instilled in us.
As he reflects now, Belic tells us that it was even more than just the 2005 happiness statistic that spurred him to make the movie. He’d been plagued for nearly 20 years by the memory of an experience he’d had as a teenager. Back then, he’d visited Mozambique with other students who raised money to help those damaged by the civil war in the East African country.
“It was a war defined by extreme brutality, maiming and injury,” he said. “Arms cut off, ears cut off, faces disfigured. They suffered extremely. The brutalizing… had been a very vicious cycle for 17 years when I arrived. So I prepared myself ahead of time for anger and despair.”
To his surprise, he didn’t find anger and despair.
“I found the opposite. People were happy to be alive, engaged, curious, and glad for any help at all. They laughed and danced. They flourished in desperate circumstances. They were able to experience life with a vibrancy and happiness I didn’t see at home. It stuck in my mind, the question: how can people flourish in brutal conditions like these?”
In “Happy,” the Cajun Blanchard family of Louisiana, poor in material wealth, finds joy in family feasts of shellfish, which they acquired for free, by fishing. One member, Ray Blanchard, motors across the bayou when he feels down, where he soaks in the beauty of nature and “listens to the stillness.”
Belic found that close community relationships make people happy. Physical activity makes people happy. Compassion and cooperation make people happy.
“happy” contrasts the crisis in much of industrialized urban Japan, where death by overwork (“Karoshi”) is on the rise, with the rural Japanese Okinawa Island, where slow paced lives thickly interwoven with community create some of the longest-lived people on the planet.
“I made the film for people roughly my age who had generally everything they needed: jobs, family, shelter, but were not flourishing, who felt a little blah,” Belic says. “ I initially wanted a film to inspire them, to find ways to come alive again.”
But an unexpected result of making the movie was the way Belic’s study of happiness entirely changed his perspective on the world. “I didn’t realize at the same time that the byproduct of happy people is a better world. Happy people are less inclined to engage in conflict, to commit crimes. Happy people are more likely to pay their taxes, help people in need, and come up with solutions to problems like all the things I care about – war and inequality.”
Among the film’s suggestions for increased happiness are engaging in exercise, expression of gratitude, investment in deep bonds with family and community, the practice of altruism and the practice of meditation.
It should be noted that Belic’s downplay of material goods and the 2005 report that first caught his eye do contrast starkly with the recent United Nations’ World Happiness Report, recent gallup World Polls and other studies which show that the happiest countries are the richest, and say that the United States ranks 11th (not 23rd) in world happiness. The primary conclusion of the 2012 UN report is, “Happier countries tend to be richer countries.”
And yet the movie has much to offer, including the perspective of a number of researchers on happiness, psychologists and authors. And it seems profoundly important that measures of well-being for people around the world increasingly include happiness.
Belic said, “I thought happiness was fun, but I didn’t really realize how important it is, how much it affects everything else I value, such as family and work. I first worried that the subject might be a little superficial. But now I realize happiness goes much deeper. Happiness can make a difference in how we approach crises and struggles all over the world, and the success we have in addressing them. I feel this is very deep.”