The Mindful Bard – Happy

Books, Music, and Film to Wake Up Your Muse and Help You Change the World

Film: Happy (Wadi Rum Films 2011)

Director: Roko Belic

Genre: Documentary

?A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.?

Proverbs 17:22 NIV

?One must choose happiness.?

Stratis Myrivilis, in Life in the Tomb

The Care and Feeding of the Bluebird of Happiness

A handsome young Japanese businessman has, by conventional standards, an idyllic life: a lovely wife and a sweet young daughter, a beautiful home, and opportunities for career advancement in one of the richest industrialized countries in the world. But he’s becoming more and more tired and depressed. Eventually, he quite literally works himself to death.

A young man in India supports his family by driving a rickshaw. He lives in a dirty hovel with a growing brood of unkempt children in close proximity to a horde of noisy, poor neighbours in a ramshackle village. And yet he wears an authentically joyful smile as he talks about how much he loves his work, his children, and his neighbours.

I had read about positive psychology (the study of happiness) while preparing for a psychology degree. Back then it was pooh-poohed by the stuffed shirts who preferred to grant a greater legitimacy to the study of depression.

But it was largely the study of depression that led to the initiative to study happiness; a researcher seeking solutions to depressive illness had the brilliant idea of studying happy people to try to find things that might make depressed people feel better.

Even the initial findings were amazing and manifold. The field of study quickly justified itself; happiness was discovered to be an effective means of preventing illness, increasing longevity, improving social relations, and reducing crime. Happiness was not only worth studying, it was worth pursuing at the expense of ambition, image, status, and money.

The neurotransmitter held responsible for the nice feeling is dopamine. What raises dopamine levels in the brain? The simple answer is that certain experiences require or release dopamine. Exercise is one good example, but engaging in routine exercise doesn’t generate as much dopamine as does performing exercise That’s novel, unusual, always changing, funny, or even a little crazy.

Before you don a gorilla suit and run grunting through a busy street, as did a group in this film, note that an individual’s capacity to experience happiness is limited to some extent by DNA. About half of our propensity for joy is genetically determined. Environment and circumstances surprisingly account for only 10 per cent, and the remaining 40 per cent comes down to intentional behaviours. Which means this: to a large extent, your happiness levels depend on your choice of what to do.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University, is the author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. He proposes that certain activities, if engaged in with passion, will over time program the brain for greater happiness. This explains the method in the madness of those who seem addicted to activities that can’t bring any perceivable benefits, such as rock climbing, surfing, writing poetry, or volunteering in community groups.

When they say that only 10 per cent of mood is determined by environment and circumstance, they’re not kidding. Loss is devastating, but humans who choose to do so can come out of terrible circumstances just as happy as or even happier than they were before.

The story of Melissa Moody is a case in point. A lovely woman from a privileged background, she suffered a horrific, disfiguring accident that paralyzed her for months. While she was recovering, her husband divorced her and became an alcoholic. In her debilitated state she also recovered memories of having been violently sexually abused by her father as a young girl.

Somehow she emerged from her ordeal with joy to spare. Now happily remarried, she exhibits an enviable level of serenity.

Happy makes clear the gulf between extrinsic goals (like money, image, and status) and intrinsic goals (like personal growth, relationships, and community feeling). Extrinsic and intrinsic goals are fundamentally opposed, and It’s the intrinsic goals that are ultimately more satisfying to achieve.

Here’s the proof: In a nutshell, what are the top dopamine-producing conditions that render humans happy?

? friendship
? family closeness
? a close, supportive community
? a healthy lifestyle
? fun
? a grateful attitude
? optimal experience
? acts of kindness

Surprised at the last one? don’t be. Ultimately It’s old-fashioned ethical values that trump hedonism every time.

Happy manifests eight of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for films well worth seeing: 1) it poses and admirably responds to questions that have a direct bearing on my view of existence; 2) it provides respite from a sick and cruel world, a respite enabling me to renew myself for a return to mindful artistic endeavour; 3) it is about attainment of the true self; 4) it inspires an awareness of the sanctity of creation; 5) it displays an engagement with and compassionate response to suffering; 6) it gives me tools of compassion, enabling me to respond with compassion and efficacy to the suffering around me; 7) it renews my enthusiasm for positive social action; and 8) it makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomenon, making living a unique opportunity.

Wanda also penned the poems for the artist book They Tell My Tale to Children Now to Help Them to be Good, a collection of meditations on fairy tales, illustrated by artist Susan Malmstrom.