Sometimes the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life. That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging, and entertaining. Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes also tell the larger story of what it means to be human. Armed with this intellectual conceit, a bag of Funyuns, and a couple of Miller beers, Daniel Elkin curls up in front of the TV and delves deep into the bowels of Netflix Streaming Documentaries to find out a little bit more about all of us.
Today he and his friend Jason Sacks found 2011's Happy directed by Roko Belic
Elkin: To quote the Rolling Stones:
Well I never kept a dollar past sunset,
It always burned a hole in my pants.
Are you happy now? No? What about now? Still not? What's wrong with you? Fuck you for being miserable! Don't you know that you will live longer and more people will like you if you are happy?
I mean if misery loves company, then happiness loves a party. As the Partridge Family once admonished you, “Come On Get Happy!”
I just finished watching Roko Belic's 2011 documentary Happy and according to it, being happy is a choice and something that I can will into being. Both of these things sound pretty good, right? Belic certainly thinks so, and he should know because he's an Academy Award nominee and Sundance Award winner.
Happy travels around the world, from Louisiana to Namibia to Brazil to Bhutan to India, finding a bunch of happy people. It then proceeds to tell you how happy these people are. It also interviews a bunch of “the world's leading happiness researchers” who tell you all about the benefits of being happy, how happiness works and what you (YES, YOU) can do to be happier.
Because your misery is bringing us all down, baby, especially you (apparently).
So Sacks, you're the one who picked this film. What about it made you so happy?
Sacks: Wow, Elkin, I wanted you to be sunshine on a cloudy day but instead you left me standing in the rain. Did this documentary get under your skin or what, my friend? Were you happy in the daze of a drunken hour but heaven knows you're miserable now? Do I detect a bit of annoyance at the message that Rojo Belic presents in this optimistic, cheerful film? After all, these experts just want you to be happy rather than a neurotic mess.
I dunno, in the wake of the Boston bombings and the Senate fumbling the ball on pathetic gun control legislation, in a week when I had to shell out thousands of dollars for my kids' college tuitions and deal with a cat that has a mysterious illness, I thought Happy might help me get past my funk to watch a movie about people who are just plain happy.
Yeah, this movie was a bit pedantic. It certainly wasn't as thought-provoking as Margaret Atwood's Payback, but I was still intrigued by the ways that social scientists can measure happiness. I thought it was intriguing how those skilled men and women can really put their fingers on the most typical ways that people become truly happy. Some of them are obvious – everyone knows that people with close friends and family are happier than most people – but others are less obvious.
I was actually a bit fascinated by the idea that people become truly happy when they enter into the Flow, when they can lose track of all the stuff and bother of everyday life. I keep thinking about how people enter an interesting sort of semi-meditative state where people become truly immersed in the task they're working on. My wife and friends often ask me why I spend so much time writing for the site; up to the time I watched this documentary, my answer was simply that writing just made me happy (or, alternatively, that writing allowed me to purge the thoughts that were building up in the back of my head, demanding to be freed). But now I realize: when I'm fully immersed in my long-ass essay about Thriller, ignoring hunger and screaming kids and the loud TV in the other room, I'm engaging in an almost meditative task. I'm becoming happy. I'm reaching bliss.
So I appreciated this film for the 80-minute burst of positivity that I needed in a pretty turbulent week. Did Happy make you angry?
Elkin: Happy didn't make me angry, Sacks, insomuch as it made me exhale deeply. Pffffeeeewwwww. I guess I am just so, so, so tired of everyone telling me to cheer up.
Don't get me wrong. I am, by nature, a pretty happy person. And, like the rest of us (for the most part), I take little pleasure from being down in the dumps (unless, of course, it is raining and cold outside and I have easy access to thick works of ponderous literature and good whiskey). I guess this film got under my skin because of the lifeless and holier-than-thou way it went about telling me about happiness. I just couldn't connect to it. A matter of fact, the whole experience of watching this film made me kind of Un-Happy.
Perhaps this reveals more about me than it is a commentary on the film. As a critic, I need to try to be more objective, but in this case I can't separate my reaction to Happy from my analysis of it as a documentary. Maybe it would have been easier for me to talk about a documentary examining the connection between mental illness and the creative process, or depression and lives of artists. Somehow I have it in my head that the dark side of things carries more heft. That lightness and joy, while celebratory, are ephemeral, transient and thin. We ecstatic dance and that moment is gone; we weep and slap layers of paint on a canvas and, in that, it becomes immortal.
Or is this just a pretension I've carried with me since my long nights awash in teenage angst and poetry?
I leave it to you, Sacks, to pop this bubble of tears. Explain to me again why should I be happy about Happy?
Sacks: It's tough to decide to be happy. It often takes a conscious choice to not allow all the oppressions of our own perceptions drive us crazy. It's so easy to give negative elements some extra heft, to believe that miserable and painfully frustrating events somehow are more important or essential or powerful than the simple joy of simply sitting back and enjoying your life. We should celebrate the ecstatic dance as much as we do the weeping that we experience; Happy makes the point that the two experiences are intrinsically connected. We must not neglect the sunshine in favor of the rain.
I think we all understand this concept on some level, but it's unbelievably seductive to allow ourselves to be seduced by the darkness that sometimes is visited upon us. But this film also makes the point that we all have a sort of equilibrium for happiness; that much like weight is for many of us, happiness is driven by a kind of inner compass that helps to help us find our appropriate level.
I thought that was an intriguing idea and one that I've often felt was true. I've noticed in my own life that seemingly ephemeral problems – financial problems, or physical pain or the stress of a fight with my wife – would flare up, stress me out, make me unhappy temporarily. But when that pain pa
ssed, I would quickly snap back to being the person I have always been. I've always thought that was interesting. I've called this idea the "another day" syndrome (as in, "the sun comes up every day, no matter what happens to me").
It was fascinating to me that this documentary quantified the idea of happiness and placed that idea in perspective. I was intrigued by the assertion that so much of our contentment in life is based upon a few simple common denominators – close friends and family, and most especially the kind of flow that I feel writing these very comments to you. Yeah, hokey as this sounds, I've taken some of the lessons of this video as calls to action for me, as opportunities to increase the joy I feel in my everyday life.
See, this all hits very personally for me. My mom suffered for most of her life with a generally undiagnosed case of clinical depression. She fought –most often failed – in her pitched battles against despair all of her life. I saw how her deep melancholy would cut my mom off from family, how these emotions that were completely out of her control would prevent my mom from making friends; how depression caused her to not achieve everything she could do in life and to make often poor decisions. Most importantly, I saw how her misery was taught to me as an odd sort of learned principle, a bizarre, sad little hand-me-down from my mother that I would carry throughout my life.
But I don't want to be depressed. I don't want to be unhappy. There's no objective reason for me to be depressed beyond a kind of indulgent narcissism that comes from outside of me, not from inside of me. I want to be happy. I want to learn the lessons of this movie. I'm fighting the lessons of my childhood to help make sure that that happens.
Elkin: Thanks for sharing all this. It makes me happy that you want to be happy, Sacks. I'm glad that you enjoyed this documentary as well. I would be a truly horrible person to deny you either of these things. For your sake, I'll change my tune.
As Charles Strouse and Lee Adams said:.
Take off the gloomy mask of tragedy,
It's not your style;
You'll look so good that you'll be glad
Ya' decide to smile!
Pick out a pleasant outlook,
Stick out that noble chin;
Wipe off that "full of doubt" look,
Slap on a happy grin!
And spread sunshine all over the place,
Just put on a happy face!
OK, Sacks, you've convinced me. I choose joy.
Trailer for the film: