In Roko Belic’s Happy, the Academy Award-nominated director explores the concept of happiness. What makes us happy? What can we do to ensure fulfilling lives filled with lasting happiness? Belic interviews more than a dozen people from across the globe, including psychologists at the forefront of the burgeoning “positive psychology” movement, a field which studies not only how to treat mental illness, but how to foster and encourage positive mental states as well.
Positive psychologists analyze these states scientifically, and seek to discover how considerations such as age, material wealth, community and religion factor in to people’s overall life satisfaction. A number of prominent scientists in this field, including UW-Madison’s Richard Davidson and Ed Diener from the University of Illinois, present their findings here, and it’s almost shocking how much of what they have to say perfectly aligns with age-old adages and platitudes we’ve been hearing our entire lives. As long as your basic needs are being met, for example, money doesn’t make you any happier. Spending time with your friends and family, however, does. Belic does a great job of presenting these findings in an easily digestible way, and makes a compelling argument as to just what sort of things we can be doing to live more satisfactorily.
Where Happy really shines is not in its presentation of scientific findings or choosing the right experts — both of which the film does quite well — but rather the way it constructs the emotional narratives at its center. Whether a rickshaw driver who lives in the Calcutta slums, a carefree surfer, a Louisianian fisherman or a community of Japanese widows, Happy excellently portrays ordinary people from all walks of life living their lives to the fullest.
Of course, this is not the only key to happiness. Belic’s film quickly establishes that satisfaction is an aggregate, a collection of a variety of factors and how we respond to them. Once the film has established this, it can go on to make its most important point. Happiness isn’t something we just happen upon, something that comes and goes. It’s a skill that we learn, something we can hone over time. Sure, it comes easier for some people than others, but it’s there for all of us if we want it.
Happy is playing at the North Shore Cinema on Monday, Sept. 26 at 9:45 p.m., at the Oriental Theatre on Thursday, Sept. 29 at 7:30 p.m., and at the Ridge Cinema on Sunday, Oct. 2 at 5:15 p.m. Be sure to go to www.milwaukee-film.org for all the latest showtimes.