Most of the recent documentaries on psychology (that I watch at least) focus on how modern society is inherently psychotic in some way, or induces depressive disorders and psychopathologies – I AM FISHEAD springs to mind. HAPPY acknowledges this idea, but not to the same extent that these other documentaries do, which elicit the same fearful reaction in the viewer: “the world is seriously messed up”.
The approach that HAPPY takes is different and this is clear from the beginning. Rather than the standard exposition of busy cities and grumpy-looking people (as if we don’t see this enough) and the enigmatic voiceover asking “what really makes us tick?”, we are dropped right in. The film’s main message is made clear right from its opening: happiness is not the product of the acquisition of wealth and comfort, but family and community. Manoj Singh, the first of several people interviewed, drives a rickshaw in Calcutta and lives in poverty in a slum. Yet, he describes being filled with joy on a daily basis at the sight of his son’s face. The insinuation is not that others would not be joyful seeing their children, but that they would despair at living in a shack made of wood and tarpaulin. “My house is good”, says Singh.
The film’s main message is made clear right from its opening: happiness is not the product of the acquisition of wealth and comfort…
So the film continues, tackling each issue with equal parts science and spirituality. Talking heads explain the psychology of happiness from various perspectives, while the human interest element is explored through different characterful cultural perspectives. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi elucidates his theory of “flow” – optimal happiness through sports-induced dopamine release – before one character waxes beautifully about the spirituality of surfing, fittingly cut to rolling waves. We are shown life in a co-housing project in Denmark, where community-based living and cooperation influences the residents to consider the whole village their family. HAPPY’s resident neuroscientists then explain how helping others releases dopamine in the much same way as drugs like cocaine do.
…resident neuroscientists then explain how helping others releases dopamine in the much same way as drugs like cocaine do.
HAPPY has its sadder moments however, displaying our societal ills. This even shocked me, as the film is overwhelmingly upbeat. Some graphs and brief history explain that the ratio of money acquisition to happiness is rather out of joint. Our societies (the film is clearly aimed at an Anglo-American audience) are shown to be centred around ‘extrinsic goals’ or those external to you – money, status, image – while the intrinsic goals of close relationships and personal growth are eschewed. The nadir comes as one woman explains ‘karoshi’, the Japanese phenomenon of working oneself to a young death.
Positivity returns however, with force. HAPPY is encouraging and makes one think about the active practise of happiness and compassion. Roko Belic’s direction is to-the-point, but not achingly minimal, nor visually flashy. HAPPY lives up to the title; I have never heard so many people laughing at a documentary in a cinema and I definitely left my seat with a big dopey smile on my face. Must be contagious.
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