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Image of children in India from the documentary Happy.
Image of children in India from the documentary Happy.

How the pursuit of happiness became a movie, and a movement Add to ...

It had to happen sooner or later. Happiness is the new sex, after all. There are new books on how to get more of it almost every month. It’s a burgeoning field of scientific study. And to not want happiness is like – yup, you guessed it – not wanting sex. It’s a basic human drive.

Which explains why there’s a new movie about happiness that is making its way around the planet. On Saturday, Feb. 11, people in more than 600 locations in 60 countries and on seven continents, including Antarctica, got together to watch a screening of a documentary called Happy.

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Why then? It was World Happy Day. (I didn’t know, either, if that makes you feel any better.)

The people behind the film came up with the idea of designating a World Happy Day to help ignite a grassroots movement for the documentary, in part by proclaiming it’s a movement even before it becomes a fully fledged one. That method of distribution – through word of mouth, social media, independent theatres and a little help from Lululemon (more on that later) – came about because the documentary failed to pick up a satisfactory distribution deal even though it won awards at several small film festivals last year.

“The offers clearly didn’t see the value of the project,” says Roko Belic, the film’s director. “And we couldn’t put it in the hands of people who didn’t understand it.”

Oh yes, this isn’t just a movie. It’s an evangelical mission to the people who made it. Film has always been the most accessible of media, and this documentary does an excellent job of combining bona fide scientific research with real-life stories of people who have found happiness in ways that subvert the often-unchallenged cultural script of money, car, house and holidays. You can absorb all the most important happiness findings without wading through a meticulously researched book. And best of all, the viewing of a film happens in a group, which facilitates discussion afterward.

Happy began six years ago with a Hollywood-scale disillusionment. Tom Shadyac, prolific comedy director of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Liar, Liar, The Nutty Professor and Bruce Almighty, among others, read an article about happiness in the The New York Times and called up his friend, Mr. Belic, an Academy-Award-nominated documentary director ( Ghengis Blues) to ask if he was interested in investigating the idea of well-being.

“Tom understood the paradox of having lots of money and not really being happy,” says Mr. Belic on the phone from California. Both men were also puzzled by the fact that the United States – the country that has the pursuit of happiness in its constitution – ranked No. 23 in the global happiness survey cited in the newspaper article. Mr. Shadyac offered to fund a documentary.

“I thought it would take one year, not six, and I didn’t know that it would change my life,” Mr. Belic says.

In the film, he interviews some of the world’s happiness gurus – Daniel Gilbert, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Tim Kasser, the Dalai Lama – and travels to India, Japan, Denmark, Bhutan, Africa and parts of America to find stories of contented people. It may have become almost cliché to include someone such as the rickshaw driver in Calcutta, who lives in a tent and beams with joy, but it’s hard to dismiss the stories of people who are just like you and me, only less lucky, less well-off and far happier.

Of the many powerful stories, Melissa Moody’s is most compelling. Once a pretty debutante, she was run over by an SUV in Texas in 1992. Her face crushed, she endured 26 reconstructive surgeries and almost died. Her husband left her. Friends could barely look at her. In the film, she is a remarkable study in the human capacity to not just overcome adversity, but become happier because of it.

At first, organizers arranged screenings of Happy in small, independent theatres. That’s how Chip Wilson, the Canadian-born founder of Lululemon saw it and offered to help. In Toronto last year, the company invited Lululemon ambassadors – people in the retail/yoga community who embody the company’s philosophy and “live the culture” – to watch the film. Talk about arming missionaries with the right kind of marketing tools. The screening of Happy in Toronto on World Happy Day, was organized by Linda Malone, owner of I am Yoga and a Lululemon ambassador, who can wax poetic about the need “to create a space for serenity” for her devotees.

Interestingly, the film has the power to transform even those who didn’t feel they were candidates for change. “I wasn’t the person I was making this kind of film for,” says Mr. Belic, 40. “Things were going well in my life,” he says. “I was following my dream, being a filmmaker. And I thought I would be making the film for people who were sort of stuck in a rut, not feeling they had the right to complain but missing the buzz. But this is the only film I’ve ever done that has affected me so profoundly.”

He moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles to be closer to friends, because he had witnessed the importance of community in the stories he filmed. And he decided to live in a trailer park near the beach so he could surf more often. “It’s an amazing, supportive community,” he says. (It should also be noted that his friend and the film’s backer, Mr. Shadyac, has also moved to a trailer park, having sold many of his belongings and given up his multi-million-dollar mansion. He went on to make a documentary of his own, I Am, about his journey to finding happiness.) Mr. Belic and his girlfriend also decided to have a baby, who was born 10 months ago.

The film is non-profit and was produced by the Creative Visions Foundation, which supports activists. All proceeds go to fund the “Happy movement.” The organization is in the process of developing an educational component through a grant from George Mason University in Virginia and last week made DVDs available for sale in the U.S. and Canada through its website (thehappymovie.com).

“The movement is picking up steam because people are responding to a world view that’s not working,” says Mr. Belic. “The movement is not saying it’s anti-capitalist and pro-socialist. It’s resonating because people realize that what’s in their hearts can be better represented by how we choose to construct the world.”

Follow on Twitter: @Hampsonwrites

 
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