Documentary Monday–”Happy”

It’s Documentary Monday . . . because I have to balance out my reality television viewing with something worthwhile.

For the very first week of Documentary Day on my blog I watched Happy. As the title would seem to imply, it was about the human pursuit of being happy, specifically what makes people happy, and what doesn’t.

Happy begins with the quote, “The Constitution only guarantees the American People the right to pursue happiness. YOU HAVE TO CATCH IT YOURSELF.” –Benjamin Franklin

The movie opens in the slums of Kolkata, India and details the life of a man who is a rickshaw operator and who lives with his family in a hut with a tarp for walls. This guy is extraordinarily happy despite what appears to be dire circumstances. About his home’s wall-lessness he says that they “get a nice breeze” and “have some trouble with the monsoons, but except for that we live well.” That is some serious making-lemonade-out-of-lemons stuff going on right there.

The scientists who studied happiness in this film looked at random samples of people from around the world. They found that 50% of happiness is determined by genetics. That is what is referred to as your “genetic set point”. That’s the thing that makes even lottery winners still depressed losers if that’s what they always were before winning the money.

Circumstances such as income, social status, where you live, and age only account for 10% of happiness. That leaves 40% unaccounted for and it is well within our power to purposely strive to manipulate that 40% to make ourselves happier.

The scientists then explain that dopamine is the chemical transmitter in the brain necessary for feelings of happiness. From our teenage years onward as we age we slowly lose dopamine synapses. Bummer!

The good news is that aerobic exercise is one of the best releasers of dopamine.

Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, PhD. wrote the book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. In it he talks about the phenomenon known as being “in the zone”, typically during athletic activites. When people are in the zone they forget their problems, forget about themselves, their ego disappears and they have a feeling that life is worth living.

People who experience this type of Flow on a regular basis are happier than others.

Another idea that is talked about in Happy is that not all adversity is bad. One of the key ingredients to happiness is being able to recover from adversity.

As one of the researchers explains, There is no pleasure without pain because our nervous system is a differential system that compares things. It doesn’t recognize one without the other.

Then we get to the question of money. We’ve all heard “money doesn’t buy happiness”. And that is true to a certain extent. When money can buy you out of poverty so that you don’t have to worry about not having food to eat or being able to pay bills, yes, that affects your happiness.

But past a certain point, about $50K a year, how much you make doesn’t make a dramatic difference to your happiness.

There are two main types of goals. One is extrinsic, in which you seek money, image and status. The other is intrinsic, in which you aspire to achieve personal growth, have relationships, and have a desire to help.

Most of us have a mix of both types of goals but, not surprisingly, those who place more value on making money and climbing the social ladder are more depressed and anxious.

All of the happiest people studied had close supportive family and friends. The benefit of a “community” is paramount in terms of happiness.

A researcher explains that when people cooperate with each other it elicits dopamine signals. This means that the act of cooperating with someone works just as well as taking a drug that affects your dopamine system. We are amazing chemical, electric machines!

There are other ways that we can make ourselves happy. Meditation on compassion and loving kindness can actually change the size of cortical areas in our brains.

It is also important to “count your blessings” on a regular basis. I try to do this whenever I am in a bad mood (which is pretty much the first 30 minutes of every morning, I’m just made that way!)

But the single most important ingredient in achieving happiness is to “commit acts of kindness”– I will do that for you now by ending this incredibly long blog post. 🙂


I definitely didn’t cover everything in the film here so if you are interested in watching it you can rent or buy it through Amazon by clicking on any of the Happy links in the post. If you plan to watch or have seen it already, please let me know your thoughts.

Did you enjoy this documentary synopsis thing? Would you be interested in reading more of these? Did it feel like a long, drawn-out book report? (Not the effect I’m going for.)

As always, please share or leave comments and don’t forget to enter your email to receive free updates.

Thank you

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