We watched an excellent documentary called Happy a couple of nights ago, and I’m still kind of digesting what it was all about.

The basic premise is simple: in order to treat people, psychologists have been focusing on the root causes of unhappiness in their patients. What if they turned this on its head and researched what makes people happy instead?

Several different subjects are interviewed across the entire globe, some of whom are dirt-poor on a level even the poorest American will never be able to relate to (a rickshaw-driver in the slums of Calcutta, bushmen in the Kalahari). Here are the findings in a nutshell (although I can’t call these “spoilers”)-some surprising, some not.

The people with the greatest sense of internal happiness were the ones who pursued goals related to personal betterment (education or skills) and the ones who had the greatest sense of family or community (telling segments in a commune in Denmark and a retirement community in Okinawa highlight this). Also, researchers found that what created a sense of enhanced, lasting happiness was the feeling of serving or helping others:

Happy doesn’t make this point directly, but it seemed (to me, anyway) that the interview subjects who seemed the most satisfied with their lives felt directly connected to nature, as highlighted by a sixty-something surfer in Brazil.

The documentary makes the distinction between “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” goals. The ugly truth is that we’re taught, as Americans, that true happiness comes from “extrinsic” goals: status, wealth, social standing. Happy drops the bombshell that, once your basic needs are met (food, clothing, shelter, medical attention), there’s no significant “spike” in happiness: there’s a large difference in personal satisfaction between someone earning $5000 a year and someone earning $50,000 a year, but no correlating jump in personal happiness between someone who earns $50,000 a year and $50 million a year (hell, I could have told you that after watching The Queen Of Versailles).

The doc’s bleakest point comes during a visit to Japan, where so many people die of literal over-work that they even created a word for it: karoshi.


The most overtly controversial scene in Happy (at least, to me) came during a segment in Bhutan where the governor claimed that it was the Bhutanese government’s job to cultivate the conditions that lead to a contented citizenry (a claim that should have every good American free-marketer’s blood boiling). Folks, the ugly truth is that American multi-nationals have been trying to “sell” happiness for decades, and no matter how much we buy, it’s never enough. In fact, if McDonald’s COULD bottle true happiness, it would be sold by the ounce and cost twice as much as beluga caviar.

So, anyhow, Happy is definitely worth a spin (it’s on Netflix and PBS).



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