When Roko Belic was 18 years old, he traveled to Africa, prepared to see unspeakable suffering.
He was delivering money and supplies to refugees of Mozambique’s civil war, a group that he knew had been “completely brutalized”; some had had their arms, lips, or noses cut off in the conflict.
But when he arrived, he was astonished by what he found.
“I saw people who were happy,” he says. “They were happy to be alive, but they were also singing and dancing. They had a zest for life that I saw missing in some of my friends back home.”
The experience challenged some of Belic’s most basic assumptions about the world. How is it possible that people who’ve suffered so much can seem happier than people who’ve grown up enjoying the comforts of the West?
He has pondered that question since returning from his trip.
Now, more than 20 years later, he has made a film that answers it.
Belic is the director of Happy, a new documentary that is receiving its theatrical release today. For five years while making the film, Belic traveled the world capturing stories of people who were truly happy—and not so happy—taking him from the United States to India to Japan to Denmark and many points in between.
Along the way, the film weaves in decades of research on happiness, featuring interviews with some of the world’s leading scientific experts on the topic, including Ed Diener, Richie Davidson, and Sonja Lyubomirsky. The stories he collected from around the globe illustrate what science knows about what makes people happy, what doesn’t, and why happiness matters.
Happy has been screened in cities and festivals around the world; it begins its theatrical run today in Corvallis, Oregon. (Check out its screening schedule.)
Belic, who also directed the charming (and Oscar-nominated) documentary Genghis Blues, recently spoke with me about what he learned about the secrets to happiness, why the United States isn’t as happy as other countries, and how making this film changed his own pursuit of happiness.
Jason Marsh: Tell me about the genesis of the project. In making a movie about happiness, why did you decide to focus so heavily on science?
Roko Belic: Well, when we first had the idea to make this project, I did not realize that there was a science growing around the study of happiness. Of course, that was one of the first things we discovered as soon as we started looking into it. And that was very exciting to me as a filmmaker, because I realized we had an advantage over simply telling people’s opinions of happiness. We had science that helped back up the ideas we might be sharing in the film.
But at the same time, I did not want to make a talking head documentary, or a documentary that felt more like a lecture. I really feel that the power of film is greatest when it captures an emotional response from an audience. And so we decided to find personal stories of people around the world that would help illustrate these scientific findings and concepts. The film is really a combination of the happiness research and powerful personal stories that express those findings.
JM: And why did you get interested in doing a film on happiness in the first place, before you even became aware of the research—what was the inspiration for the film?
RB: Sure. For a long time I felt like a really lucky person, and I feel that I’ve had a really great life so far—I’ve had incredible experiences. And I’ve wondered, just like many people do, how is it possible that some people who just seem to have so little can be so happy, and other people who seem to have so much going for them are not happy. That was a conversation I’d been having with myself for as long as I’ve been an adult.
Then the real catalyst came from a friend of mine named Tom Shadyac, a very successful Hollywood film director of blockbuster comedies like The Nutty Professor, Bruce Almighty, Liar Liar, and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Tom looked in The New York Times one day and saw an article comparing countries in terms of happiness. It said that although America is one of the richest countries in the world, it’s nowhere near the happiest.
Now when Tom first found success in the filmmaking world and bought his first mansion in Beverly Hills, he said he had this very powerful feeling when the movers left and he was standing in the entrance to his new house: He was no happier then than he had been before he’d bought this amazing house. And that was strange to him because he’d been trained by our culture to believe that the acquisition of things like mansions and fancy cars and private jets would lead to a happy and fulfilling life.
That feeling just percolated in him over the years as he made more and more money. He started to realize that his friends who are also successful—some much, much wealthier than he is, and talented, good-looking, with all these things going for them—many of them were less happy than his gardener and his housekeeper, who seemed to have genuine smiles on their faces.
So when Tom read this article in the Times, he had called me and said, “Hey, there’s something going on with happiness. I think we should explore this in a documentary film to discover what the true causes of happiness are. And I don’t know how to make documentaries, but you do. So I’ll help you pay for it, if it’s something you’d be willing to do.” And I immediately said yes.
You should know that making a documentary for me often means a commitment of four or more years. But the reason I said yes immediately was because of my own personal thoughts and experiences relating to happiness that I wanted to explore, and this gave me a perfect excuse to do it.
JM: So, five years later, based on all the interviews you’ve conducted and research you’ve read and stories you’ve heard, what do you think is the answer to that question you’ve been asking for your adult life: What are the keys to happiness that would explain why some people can seem so much happier than others who are better off financially?
RB: Well, it seems to me that some of the strongest aspects of a person’s life that can help them be happy are their relationships. Strong personal relationships are what Ed Diener, one of the leading happiness researchers, told us is really the key to happiness. He said you don’t have to like everyone or have a million friends. But to have at least a few people you really care about and love, and who care about and love you and will be there for you when you need them—that is one of the key factors in a happy life.
Another one is gratitude or appreciation. Being able to appreciate what you have—it makes a lot of sense that that would lead to happiness. Because if you are poor but you have a piece of bread to eat, and you can appreciate that, that appreciation makes you feel good and fulfilled and happy.
At the same time, if you don’t appreciate things—even if you have a private jet or a few mansions around the world or you’re extremely good looking—that explains why those things may not lead you to a happier life.
Then there’s a lot of research about values. This to me was one of the most interesting findings: that people who have what scientists call “intrinsic values,” meaning they value compassion and cooperation and wanting to make the world a better place, are more likely to be happy than people who prioritize what they call “extrinsic values,” which value things like social status, good looks, power, fame.
The reason why that’s exciting is that what you care about is within your control. In fact, a very significant part of our happiness, according to research, is within our control. And that’s exciting to me, because it means that none of us are cut off from the prospects of the possibility of a genuinely happy life.
JM: So, after learning about these research findings, does that old New York Times article Tom Shadyac read make more sense to you?
RB: Yes, it does explain things to some extent. I think what it implies is that the values we’re instilling through our educational systems, our media, and our pop culture promote extrinsic values to an extreme degree. As a kid growing up in America, one of my main goals in life was to be a millionaire. When I was seven years old, my dad asked me what I was going to do to become a millionaire. And I said it doesn’t matter, I just want to be a millionaire. That kind of perspective is really bred into us by our culture—that being famous and glamorous and powerful and sexy should be our priorities in life.
So being in a country that pushes those values, it makes sense why we would be lower on the happiness scale than other countries that are worse off in some ways financially but have their values more geared toward intrinsic, cooperative ways.
JM: Are any stories from the film that you think illustrate how other cultures, or even people within the United States, have values that really do promote happiness?
RB: Yeah, there’s a story we covered in the film of a family living in a co-housing community in Denmark. Denmark often tops the list of the happiest countries in the world. And Denmark also has the highest proportion of its population living in co-housing communities of any other industrialized nation. I think that correlation is very significant because a co-housing community is a place where people have devalued their priority for independence and competitive dominance, and they have increased their value of community and cooperation.
And so in the Danish co-housing community where we filmed, we saw 20 families cooperating almost like one single extended family, where chores like cooking food were shared by the whole group. Each family was responsible for cooking dinner maybe twice a month, when they would cook for everyone. That meant that the other days of the month, people had a lot more free time to spend with their families, or doing hobbies, or exercising, or reading, or relaxing or doing whatever they wanted to pursue that ultimately could lead them to being happier.
They did not live luxurious lifestyles. But what they had instead was this feeling of community and cooperation and security—this feeling that they were there for each other—that is more conducive to happiness than what I see in general in our culture, where we prioritize having a big house and a fancy car. The byproduct of that is keeping people at work for very long hours and prioritizing work over social relationships and hobbies and the other things that can help sustain our happiness.
JM: But people who see the film in the U.S. obviously may not be able to completely change their housing situation or even their work-life balance right away. What do you hope would be something they can take away from the film and really start to apply to their own lives the next day?
RB: There are two simple things, and they both have to do with how we spend our time and what we choose to think about.
One is that it’s very normal for us to be too busy to spend time with our friends. It’s very normal as an adult in America to lament the fact that you only see your best friend maybe once a year, or a few times a month. And that’s something that we can change, we have the ability and the power to schedule our days and our vacations so that we can indeed engage with our friends much more often.
And, second, the same goes for our hobbies. There’s a very basic concept that one of the researchers told me, which is simply that happy people do things that make them happy. Obviously, the challenge is to find what actually makes you happy instead of what you think will make you happy. But the science is suggesting that a lot of the answers are very intuitive. For example, happy people do hobbies or spend time doing activities they enjoy. So if you enjoy bicycling, or knitting, or drawing pictures, or whatever the hobby is, if you’re neglecting it, you’re taking away a very fruitful opportunity to increase your happiness.
There’s a guy in our film named Ronaldo Fadul, and he is a very avid surfer in a small town in Brazil—he has essentially made surfing the priority in his life. He’s not in the film to encourage us to drop all our other life goals and spend our entire lives surfing. But he’s there to show us that somebody who pursues something that genuinely makes them happy may grow as a person, and that person can actually have something to offer society. Ronaldo is a great person who I saw helping out so many people in his community. And I’m sure he had the ability to help his community in part because he was so content in his own life.
JM: What’s interesting is that it seems easy to disparage happiness because it seems frivolous and even selfish, with its focus on yourself. But from a lot of what you’re saying and from the stories in the film, it seems like you really saw social benefits from personal happiness.
RB: That’s right. When we started this film, I thought people would criticize the pursuit of happiness as something that’s selfish. But what I learned is that a person’s happiness is not only critical for them to function better as a human being—to be healthier, live longer, be more creative, more successful at work. The impact of a happy person is also very, very significant on their family, group of friends, workplace, community, or possibly even their country and the world.
Happy people are less likely to commit crimes, they’re less likely to be abusive in the home, they’re less likely to want to go to war, they’re less likely to get sick. And when I discovered that, I realized that the study of happiness and the pursuit of happiness are much more important and significant than I had previously thought.
JM: So what makes you happy? Has your pursuit of happiness changed at all as a result of making this film?
RB: It’s a good question. When I started making this film, I was a pretty happy guy. And one of the reasons Tom asked me to make the film was that he thought I had some insight into happiness that maybe some of his other friends didn’t. So I thought I was going to share some of my experiences and my insight.
What happened, though, is that I made a few very significant changes in my life toward the pursuit of my own happiness while making the film. One is that I moved so that I could be closer to some of my friends who I hadn’t seen in years. They’re very close friends of mine, and I realized at some point that if I don’t make an effort, there’s a good chance that I’d go through the rest of my life having only minimal contact with them.
I also started surfing again. Surfing is something that I was told—and started to believe—was a frivolous, meaningless hobby that was incongruous with my career as an independent filmmaker trying to find a foothold in the film industry. I was starting to think that surfing was not helping in that regard, so I stopped surfing for about 12 years. And now I live a few minutes from the beach so I can surf a few times a week.
That became a priority for me after I spoke with a happiness researcher who said that when he saw what physical aerobic exercise does for the brain in terms of health and happiness, he started riding his bicycle to work every day. And he lives in Wisconsin, where it can be 30 degrees below zero. So I thought, Wow, if this guy is going to do that, the least I can do is go surfing, which I love doing.
So yes, I’ve actually made some very important changes. And now making this film and feeling like I’m part of a conversation that I really believe in and that I think can help other people—that makes me happy in itself.