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A movie review of ‘happy’

Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts on happiness. The second will be published in next week’s In Your Corner column in TGI’s Wellness section.


I’ve have found a little pot of gold in the documentary “happy” to share. Directed by Roko Belic, “happy” takes us to many places in the world in search of what really makes people happy. It also includes interviews with the leading scientists in happiness research.

It begins with a quotation by Benjamin Franklin, “The Constitution only guarantees people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.” He makes a good point. We are the only ones responsible for making ourselves happy. It’s an inside job although we like to blame others for our unhappiness.

Several interviews asking, “What do you really want?” show that “happiness” is the number one answer. The scene changes to the Kolkata slums of India featuring Manoj Singh who proudly shows off his hut. He is proud that he has plastic tarps on three sides, which is great until the monsoons come. He is usually happy running his rickshaw except for when drunks abuse him. He says that when his children see him after waiting for his return, and call out “baba” (Daddy), he’s filled with joy, even if they only have rice with salt sometimes to eat. He is friends with all his neighbors who “stay together.” “I am the happiest man in the world!” he says. It doesn’t take much material wealth to be happy.

Scientists used to study sadness, but since the 90s began studying happiness as well. It is named Positive Psychology — and is often the most popular class at Harvard. 

Dr. Ed Diener Ph.D. states that happiness makes everything better: jobs, relationships,  health and more. So where does it come from?

Research on genetics have found that 50 percent of our range point for happiness is genetic. Another 10 percent is affected by environmental factors. That leaves 40 percent to other things that seem to make folks happy. That’s what they’re targeting research on. 

They’ve discovered that it’s good to try new things or do things that you love to do. In the Louisiana swamps when Roy Blanchard sometimes, “feel down a little,” he gets in his motorboat on the swamp, or sits on the dock, and watches the sunset, the birds, the ‘gators and nature. “It’s good medicine,” he says with a wide grin. “Something shows up.”

Dopamine is the “happiness hormone,” states  P. Read Montague, PH.D. It’s a neurotransmitter that zaps from one cell to another. Dr. Gregory Berns, Ph.D states that from about the teenage years onward, we begin progressively losing a little dopamine. If we lose too much, we develop Parkinson’s. But the body adapts. We seek things that boot us up. Things that increase dopamine involve physical activity, especially if done in a novel way. To illustrate this point we see a marathon run by people in gorilla suits.

Next we fly to Brazil to see Ronaldo Fadul who has surfed since 1966. It’s a spiritual experience for him. He chooses to live in a simple shack growing his own veggies, saving baby birds who fall from trees and surfing with his children. “Each person has to be what he wants to be,” he claims. His daughter wants to be an economist.

Psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmilhalyi wrote the national best-seller “FLOW” about being “in the Zone, or flow.” He defines it as “doing something hard, that takes your focus,… you do it for no money, no status, but just because you like to do it …You wish it could go on forever, because you are fulfilling something you do well, and nothing else matters. People who do it have very clear goals. They feel control, forget their problems, and forget their egos. It can happen almost anywhere.” 

Meet Jamal who flips omelets artfully and grills home fries perfectly as a cook. He can cook with two hands at a time. He gets into the zone. He states that he just loves to cook, always has and is good at it.. Research is clear, “People who experience flow on a regular basis are happier than those who don’t.”

Daniel Gilbert, Ph.D, says that people over estimate the effect that both good things and bad things that have on them. Sure, people experience the joy of the good thing and the low of the unpleasant, but people tend to return to what they think of is their “normal” state in a short amount of time.  

Melissa Moody was a very beautiful debutant, but in 1992 she was run over by her sister-in-law’s truck who left a disagreement in a huff, catching Melissa’s hand in the door handle. She was dragged under the truck which left her face terribly disfigured. Her husband left her. She had 30 surgeries on her face. She was angry and considered suicide for a time, but her love of her family and horses pulled her through. She is now  happily married to someone who wasn’t afraid to talk about her accident, sees her as beautiful, and calls her that. 

Being able to recover from adversity more quickly is a characteristic of happy people. They come back to baseline more quickly. And even though it took Melissa years to fully bounce back, some people never do. They continue to play the victim card which causes unhappiness for themselves and those around them to the degree that they let it.

We live in a culture that projects money will make us happy. However research suggests our happiness level is staying about the same, while people are making more money. Once basic needs are met, the amount of money people acquire doesn’t seem to affect their happiness. So if you aren’t keeping up with the Joneses, but are happy, you may have what they don’t. 

I’ll complete my “review” in next week’s column. In the meantime, pay attention to what makes you happy and what doesn’t. See if you can get “into the flow” with something. I do it in my garden, or even when I write. It truly is energizing.


• Hale Opio Kauai convened a support group of adults in our Kauai community to “step into the corner” for our teens, to answer questions and give support to youth and their families on a wide variety of issues.   Please email your questions or concerns facing our youth and families today to Annaleah Atkinson at 



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