Roko Belic’s Happy is about happiness, the science behind it and how to achieve it. If that doesn’t tempt you, you need to smile more.
In recent times it seems most modern documentaries given a theatrical release are either harrowing accounts of tragedies or trials over adversity. In the past year we have seen a convict’s final ten days on death row (Into the Abyss), a young girl’s struggle with an exploitative modelling agency (Girl Model) and a Tyneside record store’s battle in a digital age (Sound It Out). While these are compelling, justified accounts, they are not often pleasurable viewing experiences. Not that the main point of a documentary is to entertain, but with Belic’s Happy, it is refreshing to see an uplifting concept, posing a simple question: what is it that makes us smile?
Happy doesn’t take a deluded or air-headed stance suggesting that everything is going to be alright if you simply think positively. It undertakes detailed examinations looking into what it is that makes us happy from psychological, medical and individual perspectives, differentiating between momentary happiness felt by eating a cookie, drinking a coke or getting a promotion, to the more comforting, sustainable factors in our lives that form the basis of who we are and our relationships with family and friends.
The film starts in the slums of India, where a struggling rickshaw driver is ‘proven’ to be happier than most Americans in high profile jobs. The camera then travels the world cascading through the lives of several weird and wonderful characters, all with tall tales and enlightening insights into the human condition which, en masse, amount to a wonderful, educational and heart rendering viewing experience.
Academy award nominated director Roko Belic conducts interviews with Professors of “positive psychology” (Dr Ed Diener and Dr Tim Kaiser) and shows footage from medical experiments on Buddhist monks proving that, after detecting raised dopamine levels, the feeling of happiness can be achieved and sustained by meditating on a regular basis. When asking the member of a Namibian tribe what it is that makes him happy, the man says “family, friends and home”. And a local who runs around pretending to be a buffalo always helps. Another man interviewed had given up his career and spent the last seventeen years of his life volunteering in a hospice in Calcutta. He said he had never felt so happy simply by helping others in need, and that by caring about things bigger than himself, he found an overpowering feeling that transcended life and death.
During a Q&A after the screening earlier this week, Belic revealed that making the film was more revelatory to him on a personal level than he expected, and that to be happy, or to smile, means different things in different places. “In Japan if you are happy it means you are selfish and in Russia if you smile for no reason it is considered to either bring bad luck – or they think you are an idiot. Elsewhere it is considered that happiness should be a by-product of doing everything correctly in relation to buying a house, getting married, having children etc.” Belic went on to state that the process of making the film had showed him that “food, shelter and a community are our basic needs and what ultimately makes us happy as individuals. It doesn’t come down to politics as people who live in communist countries are generally no less happy than those living under capitalist regimes. There is a happy medium between economic prosperity and our relationships with others. I like to think of it as compassionate capitalism.”
Presented in conjunction with “My” (an organisation promoting happiness and helping people to find balance), Happy asks and attempts to answer many questions such as: are our values the key components of happiness? It establishes that personal growth, our relationships with others and community are the three main commodities to a happy life. The film also moves, compels and unlike most documentaries, is totally delightful. You can’t help but feel a bit better about the universe after watching it.
Happy is screening at the Bush Theatre, London on the 16th May and at various locations throughout the country on 18th May. Find out more at thehappymovie.com
Text: Daniel Goodwin