Sunday, May 20, 2012

Are you "Happy"

I will admit that I don't generally watch documentary movies. TV shows sure, but not movies. I'm not sure why this is. But one of my New Year's Resolutions was that I was going to try to correct this trend and not only watch some documentaries but actually seek out this genre more often.

So when my eye caught on a little movie called Happy, I figured it was past due for me to actually make good on this resolution. Since I wasn't likely to rematch the movie I downloaded it as an iTunes rental and set out to view it right away.

Happy is about the notion of happiness and what makes us happy. There has been, as even the movie notes, an increase in books about the idea of happiness and how to be more happy over the past few years. And even college courses as I was surprised to find out. Harvard's class on happiness studies is one of its most popular courses. They don't go into a lot of details about the class and the focus it takes but I could believe that if it is a multidiscipline type class that blends psychology, philosophy etc together that it would be a big hit as it is likely that that style of class would be more interesting than a boring math or history class and one could guess that interested students are happier ones. I found the idea of such a class so unique that I actually fired up my iTunes U app on my iPad to see if perhaps the class was available there. If not I might have to cull through this movie before my rental runs out to get some of the names and titles they mention to do my own bit of studying (I'm a bit of a sucker for this type of stuff as my love of the 'pop culture and philosophy' book series should have indicated). And while I did not find the Harvard course, I did find a TED course that I immediately downloaded .

I found on watching this movie that I actually enjoyed it in an odd way. I was truly fascinated by some of the notions that were discovered and presented. I wasn't shocked by the idea that more money doesn't really make people happy once they have their basic needs met. But I was surprised by the idea that both good and bad experiences can make people happier. Various scientists spoke of studies about dopamine and exercise and how the stranger and unique the activity the more benefit we get from it which is why people do things like free climb rocks or run 4k races in bizarre costumes. Happiness and the brain, says one scientist, is like a muscle that we can't let atrophy or it will die and can't be revived.

The stories presented were from around the world with Ricksaw drivers living in what the Western World would call squalor and poverty declaring themselves to be extremely happy in their simple lives surrounded by their friends and family. We also see a short order cook who probably doesn't even have a car and lives in a walk up apartment etc who simply says 'I love to cook' and does it with a bit of flair and showmanship (I went back to watch him flipping omelets a couple of times because it was so cool). A retired man who lives in a shack and takes care of baby birds that feel out of their nests and surfs who is totally cool with his children wanting a different kind of life. And so on.

These scientists and doctors talk about some big terms like hedonistic treadmill which is really just a fancy way of saying the more we get, the more we tend to want. They talk about the effects of happiness on our health etc. They look at external (money, image, status) and internal (personal growth, relationship, desire to help) goals and how they affect happiness. Not surprisingly external goals and failing to reach them tends to be the major reason for unhappiness.

One of the most interesting parts of the movie was when they focused on Japan. Japan is one of the wealthiest 'western' countries in the world and has been found to be the most unhappy on a cultural/society level. It seems, the studies have found, that the culture's notions of work and efficiency have led to this rampant unhappiness that is so perversive that it is literally killing people, something they call Karoshi. Work and money making are so valued above everything else that people work extremely long hours, put business before family etc. Karoshi is so common that there are foundations that have been created to call attention to it and try to help stop it.

Compared to this is Bhutan which is one of the poorest countries in Asia. But while they are trying to develop and raise their economy they focus on Gross National Happiness rather than money. The government is focusing on the ways that actions and choices effect the happiness of the people and not just how much money they make. The movie doesn't mention that the area is almost certainly all Buddhist and that might play into these decisions but it does point out that this push for government supported happiness for all is fairly recent so the success/failure of this notion hasn't yet been fully seen.

Another country the moviemakers give great attention to is Denmark. Not only does the country provide free education and health care but push a notion of co-housing. This is more than just families in an apartment building. They actually share some chores such as cooking meals together, watching the various children, farming chores if they are in the country etc. This goes back to previously mentioned studies about the happiness people are always those with a support group of friends and family.

I found this movie to be fascinating. The notion of happiness is one that we all try to understand and pursue and yet we have different ideas of what that means. Sometimes even in the same communities or even families. Even those that generally don't enjoy watching documentaries should really give this a viewing

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