Last week, I went out to lunch with a friend of mine, and she told me about this documentary she had seen called Happy. It seemed to have made an impact on her. Over our meal, she talked about how it inspired her to contemplate making some changes in her life such as volunteering at a hospice. The more she talked about it, the more intrigued I was to see it for myself. So I did.
Produced and directed by Academy Award nominated Roko Belic, Happy takes its viewers on a quest through five continents in search of the key ingredients needed to live a happier and more fulfilling life. The film was inspired when Tom Shadyac (director of Patch Adams, Liar Liar, and Ace Ventura: Pet Dectective) had read an article in the New York Times stating that the United States was 23rd on its list of the happiest countries. Shadyac wondered why the U.S. ranked so low. Despite his wealth and lavish Beverly Hills lifestyle, Shadyac was aware of his own dissatisfaction. He asked Belic to create a documentary that explored the subject of human happiness, which led to the creation of Happy.
A huge pie chart representing the factors that impact our happiness was shown in the beginning of the documentary. It stated that our genes make up 50% of what determines our happiness. Our circumstances (such as what job we have, how healthy we are, how much money we have, and our status in society) only make up 10%. The last 40% is based on intentional behavior, the things we do on a regular basis to increase our levels of happiness; the aspect we have the most control of.
Here are some of those key behaviors that were talked about:
- Physical Activity - Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain responsible for our feelings of happiness and pleasure. Exercise raises our levels of dopamine, causing us to feel happy.
- Appreciate What You Have - A woman shared a traumatic experience in which she was accidentally run over by her sister-in-law. Up until that point, she had a great life, wonderful kids, a great home life, a husband, a good job, and physical beauty. But after the accident, her body was so severely disfigured that in the ICU, they could only recognize her by her hands. Her husband divorced her. Many times, she felt like killing herself. Knowing that her children needed her, kept her going. She was disabled for over 9 years and underwent 30 plastic surgeries on her face. Even though the surgeries were able to decrease the level of deformity, she was never able to look as she once did. Eventually, she came to accept what had happened to her, and began to heal on an emotional level. She even married a man that fully accepted her as she is. The woman admits that she is happier today than she was before the accident. She feels more grounded, more centered and more connected to who she is intrinsically as a person. She is grateful for this second chance at life, and truly appreciates every day, and every moment. If you ask me, she wasn’t just given a second chance, but because she developed a deeper sense of appreciation, she received a chance at a more meaningful and satisfying life. An activity that is great for invoking appreciation is to write down 5 things you are grateful for. Do this at least once a week.
- Connecting with Close, Supportive Friends and Family/Community – Society tells us in order to be happy, we need to be successful, make a lot of money, and have a good job. Although having enough money to take care of basic needs (food, shelter, clothes) does increase happiness, an excess of money doesn’t necessarily make us any happier. Someone who makes $150,000 a year isn’t necessarily any happier than someone who brings home $40,000 a year. In fact, people who are very focused on making more money and higher social status tend to be more depressed, anxious, and generally less energized. The happiest people are those who focus their time and energy on close, supportive friends and family, and community. People who are happy tend to live longer. And there’s nowhere in the world with more people who live over the age of 100 than Okinawa, Japan. Okinawa is a close-knit society. Their traditions and community activities keep the people connecting with one another. For instance, they have a band that plays in a different village every Friday night. Everyone in the village, from young to old, comes out to see it.
- Compassion/Service to Others – People who focus their attention on personal growth and helping to make the world a better place, tend to have more vitality, more happiness, less depression, and less anxiety. According to Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, people who were doing a specific type of meditation to develop compassion and loving kindness were able to increase their level of happiness for longer periods. They were more successful at being happy than people taking powerful anti-depressant medications. Meditation has been known to change the structure of the brain. In the article “The True Expression of Non-Violence is Compassion,” the Dali Lama says, “the true aim of cultivation of compassion is to develop the courage to think of others and do something for them.” When we start to think about the welfare of the people around us and the planet we live on, our life grows and becomes more meaningful.