Happy — the movie

My humanist group recently viewed the 2012 documentary film “Happy.” The pursuit of happiness is a basic American (or human) right. But what is “happiness?” If it’s a feeling, and your pursuit ends in getting it, what then?

This suggests that a sensation at a given moment, necessarily transitory, is not the true aim. The Greeks spoke of eudaimonia, a life well lived. Not the feelings of a moment, but of one’s life in its wholeness.

The film began with an Indian rickshaw driver. Tough way to make a living. But, surrounded by smiling faces, he was smiling too, as happy as the average (far more affluent) American.

Indeed, studies show such life circumstances account for only about 10% of happiness. Fifty percent is genetic, giving each of us a baseline “set point,” to which one’s mood reverts after the impact of some stimulus, good or bad, tails off. And the remaining 40% is a function of what we do.

Dopamine is a chemical, a “neurotransmitter,” produced in the brain, which induces sensations of pleasure and happiness. There’s a “use it or lose it” aspect to dopamine. Thus a key route to feeling happy is to seek out experiences that trigger dopamine release. Physical activity does this; especially when involving novelty.

Appearing in the film was psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who gave us the concept of “flow.” This is when one is completely absorbed in an activity, subsuming all quotidian concerns. Good for dopamine.

Also appearing was Daniel Gilbert, whose book Stumbling on Happiness showed how poor we are at judging how any future thing will affect our mental state. In particular we overestimate how good an achievement or acquisition will make us feel, in the long term. A related concept is the “hedonic treadmill” or “adaptation effect” (explained in Barry Schwartz’s book, The Paradox of Choice). We adapt to a changed life situation, now taking it for granted as the “new normal,” so its psychological lift dissipates, leaving one no happier than before. And craving the next lift. This “chain wanting” is what Buddhism declares the root of suffering.

Similarly, we over-estimate the impact of bad turns. Illustrative here was Melissa Moody, disfigured in a horrible accident. She not only adapted to her “new normal,” it actually gave her an enhanced perspective on life, and ultimately greater happiness than before.

Schwartz’s book also distinguishes between two personality types: “maximizers” who aim for achieving the best in any situation, and “satisficers” for whom the watchword is “good enough.” It turns out the latter are actually happier with what they get. And another key aspect of happiness is feeling gratitude for what you do have.

The film portrayed Japan as the least happy industrialized nation. Flattened by WWII, Japan emphasized rebuilding, making for an economic miracle of affluence rising from ashes. However, that went to an unhealthy extreme, creating a culture of all work and no play. They even have a word, “karoshi,” for death by overwork — not a metaphor but an all too common reality. Yet the film contrasted one part of Japan, Okinawa, with a very different ethos emphasizing communitarianism: people enjoying each other. And more reach age 100 there than anywhere else.

Bhutan, meanwhile, has sought to de-emphasize Gross National Product in favor of “Gross National Happiness.” That might sound like gooey happy-talk; and while it does make sense to recognize that there’s more to life than wealth production, one film attendee was disturbed at the idea of Bhutan’s government not just pushing happiness but imposing its own prescription for it. Bringing to mind her one-time home — the USSR.

What actually seems to be the happiest country is Denmark (where religion has almost disappeared). But what Denmark does have is, like Okinawa, strong communal feeling. The film showed a “co-housing community,” where a bunch of families live in close proximity, sharing meals and other aspects of life. A big element of human happiness is, again, relationships with other people.

As I keep stressing, social cooperation was a powerful driver in human evolution; we lived in bands where that was essential for group survival. Studies repeatedly show that the healthiest and happiest people are those with the strongest ties to others. Many strive for popularity, attractiveness, and status in the eyes of others. But such superficialties don’t do it for them; they tend to be less happy, and more anxiety-ridden, than those who relate to others with compassion, caring, and love. This was exemplified by the film’s last profile, a man who gave up “normal” life to devote himself to caring for afflicted people in Mother Teresa’s Kolkata sanctuary.

To say one shouldn’t be selfish ultimately misses the mark; “no man is an island” is true but also untrue in the sense that we can only experience anything within the confines of our own skulls — literal islands of experiencing. But the paradox of happiness is that confining one’s concern within that space makes for an unsatisfying life. What happens on other islands is an indispensable source of meaning for us.

3 Responses to “Happy — the movie”

  1. Robyn Blumner Says:

    Great post! You have resurrected your moniker of “Optimist!”

    Have a wonderful new year!

    Robyn E. Blumner *President and CEO*, Center for Inquiry *Executive Director,* Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science 1012 14th St. NW, Suite 205 Washington, D.C. 20005 RBlumner@centerforinquiry.org 202-733-5276

    The Center for Inquiry strives to foster a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Our vision is a world where people value evidence and critical thinking, where superstition and prejudice subside, and where science and compassion guide public policy.

    On Fri, Dec 27, 2019 at 8:26 AM The Rational Optimist wrote:

    > rationaloptimist posted: “My humanist group recently viewed the 2012 > documentary film “Happy.” The pursuit of happiness is a basic American (or > human) right. But what is “happiness?” If it’s a feeling, and your pursuit > ends in getting it, what then? This suggests that a sensati” >

  2. Gregory Kipp Says:

    From an evolutionary point of view, happiness can be seen as a psycho-biological response to a successful outcome. In this context, the purpose of happiness would be to reinforce successful behavior, thereby enhancing chances for survival. Given the evolutionary origin of emotions like happiness, animals must also be able to feel these things at some level.

  3. DAN FAREK Says:

    Frank, I offer a quote from the Preface to Saint Exuprey’s Night Flight;
    “—man’s happiness lies not in freedom but in his acceptance of a duty”.

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