The keys to happiness
Roko Belic is an Oscar-nominated documentarian who spent six years developing the idea for a film about what it truly means to be happy from both a scientific and spiritual perspective. Belic, whose life has literally been transformed by happiness, talks about the surprising science behind feeling good: how connectedness, generosity and spirituality increase it, why Bhutan has a Gross Happiness Index and why Denmark is the happiest place on Earth. Insights interviews Belic following the release of his film Happy on DVD.
Your previous films have been about positive and altruistic subjects. What draws you to this subject matter as a filmmaker?
The films I work on are positive in nature. And I think that this is a reflection of my personality. I have a lot to be thankful for. The lifestyle that I lead and the things that I’ve been able to do and experience are blessings. I feel lucky to have experienced the things that I’ve experienced and the people I’ve met and I think that this is reflected in my films.
The inspiration came from a friend of mine. The friend is Tom Shadyac and he’s a very successful Hollywooddirector of blockbuster comedy movies like Liar Liar and Bruce Almighty. He has succeeded far beyond what most directors have — his films have made millions at the box office. He read an article in the New York Times. Essentially the article said thatAmerica’s a very rich country, but not a very happy country. Tom understood this paradox because he hung out with very successful and wealthy and talented but many of them are not as happy as the people who sweep the floor and tend the garden at my house. He wanted to know what makes people happy and what doesn’t. I thought it sounded like a great idea for a film.
My findings proved that if you value things like cooperation and compassion you are more likely to be a happy person. That was really moving to me, because this relates to everything I care about. I guess my films are about pursuing lives that are meaningful. Happiness is related to who we are at our core.
Who would have thought that there’s a science to it?
Exactly, and this article in the New York Times was one of the first articles written about it. I then went online and started looking into it myself. I discovered this field of science called positive psychology. Up to that point I had no idea that people studied happiness from a scientific perspective. This was what was so exciting about this project, that I was jumping into was a brand new field of science.
People have only been looking at the science of happiness in a very direct way for ten or twenty years. Scientists have identified the part of the brain that is responsible for pleasure and happiness. They don’t know what’s happening there but that’s a great start.
How did you find the interview subjects for the film?
The way that I found the subjects in the film were all very different. In the case of Melissa Moody it was a fluke. I was with a friend who was writing a book on optimism and he was interviewing Melissa. We found the rickshaw puller Manoj Singh through a positive psychology researcher. And after we met, the researcher said that after questioning him he is exactly as happy as the average American, which is ironic in a place that has open sewage and people live in makeshift slums. The atmosphere was welcoming and nurturing despite this. We did a more directed search for our Brazilian surfer. We were looking for someone who didn’t choose a career as most people do —someone who chose to dedicate himself to something that is fun and healthy. When we asked around about someone who stood out in the surfing community everyone pointed us to Ronaldo Fadul and his family. Then there’s Andy Wimmer, the gentleman who was a banker inMunichwho was working at the Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying. He told me his story and something that struck me is that his life choices are counter intuitive to most people in the West. We are sort of trained to pursue comfort and safety and luxury and these are exactly the things that Andy gave up to some extent to go and work in a place with his bare hands to tend to people who are dying of diseases. This brings him a different kind of fulfilment that luxury and comfort and safety can never do.
Talk a bit more about positive psychology.
Well it stands to reason if you can study depression you can study happiness. You can ask someone what makes them unhappy. If you can study happiness in an unbiased way through questionaries, or anecdotally, scientists have shown that the data tends to correlate and that people tend to be honest and are very aware of how happy they are. Once you understand that there is objectivity to it to some extent, you can collect meaningful information and discover things that haven’t been discovered before.
How long did it take to put the documentary together?
It took me about six years to put it together. When Tom (Shadyak) had suggested we make the film I thought I was committing to an eight month or one year project. I had no idea it would be six years until we had the final cut of the film. But I have to say that every step of the way was very enriching and it has really benefited my life greatly to have the opportunity to focus on these things and think about them to the extent that I have incorporated them into my own life.
Why does Bhutan have a Gross Happiness Index?
Experimental and environmental problems in Bhutan were coming to a head and as a country they decided to pursue what is called Gross National Happiness rather than Gross National Product and in that simple, symbolic gesture that has manifested into very concrete behavioural changes for the government and for their economic policies. That includes things like setting aside sixty per cent of their natural forest as untouched. They could have made a lot of money through deforestation but decided to set it aside for their people. What kind of life is it when you can’t swim in a river because it has been polluted from mining operations and clear cutting? And so they are a small country and a relatively small voice in the world who by taking a bold step have led the world. Recently as well the King made a decision to abdicate the throne and help the country pursue democracy for the first time! They’re making a sincere effort — not just paying lip service to it. Fundamentally what they have recognised is that the pursuit of economic gain is not synonymous with flourishing or prosperity.
In the film you also focus on community living in Denmark. What aspects of living in community make us happy?
Living in community is simply people living in a way that is more close to our natures as humans. InAmericaand in much of the west, the vision of a successful lifestyle includes a house that’s big enough to have property all around it so you never hear or see your neighbours. And if your property isn’t big or wide enough you build a wall so you don’t see them and you slip in and out of your house through your gate in your air conditioned car so you never have to experience or feel the environment you are living in. As wonderful as that sounds to many of us, it does go against what we have been bred to flourish in. We haven’t studied the benefits of those interactions in the same way that we haven’t studied happiness until recently. I think we have done a lot to exploit and promote ideas of independence and individual choice and empowerment. But there is a price when it becomes too extreme, when it takes away from our relationships and our interactions with our communities.
Do you think that a belief in something outside ourselves increases our happiness?
I tend to feel that all people are naturally spiritual, even though the words “spiritual” and “religious” tend to alienate people. We are all naturally empathic beings and feel the emotions and pain of those around us. The fact that we are naturally empathic beings means we are naturally spiritual. We do feel interconnectedness of different living creatures. If you think of us as unspiritual beings and simply products of evolution, there would be no reason for us to want to feel compassion. It’s who we are and so I think the question for me isn’t “Does spirituality help us feel happy?” because we are all spiritual whether we know it or not, or whether we like that word or not. But when we allow ourselves to express that and to practice that spirituality, we are able to practice the compassion and empathy that we have within us —I do think that increases our happiness.
A lot of the momentum pushes us against expressing our empathic compassionate natures. We are taught from the time we are in school to compete. That competition we know can have benefits. There are pluses to that approach but there are also minuses and those negatives can include alienation, separation and the feeling that people are not connected to us and that we should compete against them, even to the point of harming others. When culture tells us to compete at the expense of others, then hoard as much as we can and to collect as much as we can for ourselves, we are trained to become as rich as we possibly can — even as people are literally starving in other parts of the world and in some cases even in our own countries. That’s an aberration, an abuse of our natural states.
What myths did you want to counteract with the film and what do you want people to take away from it?
Happiness is good for you! It’s good for an individual it’s good for the world. Happy people are healthier, they do better at work, they get more raises, they’re more likely to help a stranger in need, they’re less likely to steal or hurt somebody or to get into a fight. That’s why I wanted to make the film. The science shows us to large extent that happiness is within our control, and it’s an area that’s much larger than any of us thought. When I started making the film I thought that you were either born a kind of grumpy bastard who was always unhappy with things, or you were born an optimist. I didn’t realise how much of it we do have control over. And the control isn’t dependent on things that are extreme like becoming a millionaire or being extremely good looking or winning the lottery. The control is in ways that are much more accessible like being a good person who says “thank you” and appreciating the things that you have experienced in your day. Very simple and easy-to-do things seem to have an impact on our happiness and that why it’s important to spread the message because it’s not something for an elite few people, its something all of us can achieve and have an impact on.
So true happiness really does feed the soul?
Absolutely, I didn’t meet a single person in six years of travelling the globe for this film that said they wanted to be less happy. Every group of people is at least interested in it. This is one of the most universal goals that we have as human beings across cultures, economic standings and age groups, we all want to be happy. The one single trait that’s common among every single person who is happy is strong relationships.
So are you happier having made the film?
You know if you’d asked me that about a year ago I would have said no, I’ve always been happy. I was happy when I started making the film and I thought I was making this for other people. But a few months ago I looked back and realised that I made a few really major changes in my life because of the film. I started surfing again, I moved to another city so I could be closer to my childhood friends after hearing about the importance of relationships. Specifically I moved to a mobile home park in Malibu L.A. because after visiting my friend there a few times I realised that it was a community that was closest to what we saw in Denmark. And I met more of his neighbours than I did in ten years living in my own house in a suburb inSan Francisco. And the community tends to be right on the coast so I can surf more and my girlfriend and I looked around at this amazing place, surrounded by all our friends and we’re happy. And we said what a great place to raise a child and about 15 months ago our baby daughter was born. Making the film totally changed my life in a positive way.
And the formula is not the same for everyone. There is no single formula for happiness. But what seems to be universal is that if you are around the people who you love and love you no matter where you are you are more likely to be happy and feel like you’re flourishing in your life.
I feel like this movie amplifies the voice of these amazing people in the film, it has nothing to do with me, and it is just a privilege to share these amazing perspectives.
See also actionforhappiness.org
Download the World Happiness Report here.
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