Happy vs. Happiness is

Well, it’s time I give an analysis of the two documentaries Happy (2011) and Happiness Is (2009).

Surprisingly, the two films are sharply different, namely in their approach. They both focus primarily on recent scientific exploration into the nature of happiness. Happiness Is picks up its premise from The Declaration of Independence, which states one of our primary rights is the pursuit of happiness. The director seems obsessed with this without bothering to mention that the pursuit of happiness was originally delegated to only white male landowners. He is more concerned with the fact that we don’t really know the exact definition of happiness, sort of in the same way as love. Happy is more concerned with talking to the scientists who are performing studies to help us figure out what we can know about happiness. 

The one thing Happiness Is has over Happy is the guest appearances. Happiness Is has the big-name guests, like Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp. However, in my book, this is actually more of a setback in the long run because Happy is the more focused film. Happiness Is is more sprawling and wanders off into tangential points that aren’t as interesting and, in some cases, are politically loaded. I am not a Michael Moore fan because I don’t like to have politics spoon-fed to me. I much prefer the Errol Morris approach, where critical questions are asked but the viewer is left to form their own conclusions. 

In the end, Happy is the more artfully done and more tightly focused film. Happy spends probably more time than needed with a man who goes boating in Louisiana. However, it works because the viewer gains a strong sense of how this man, with little money to his name, derives his joy from weekend trips where he can interact with nature while traveling in his boat. The opening of the movie is an interview with a rickshaw operator in India who is happier than many people in a wealthy nation like the U.S. As the experts explain, this is because once an individual reaches a certain economic level to cover basic needs, happiness levels are a wash (I was reminded of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from undergrad). Again, the filmmaker, Roko Belic, builds a human connection and involves the viewer on an emotional level. The thesis of the film is summarized near the end when The Dalai Lama states that happiness begins with compassion.

The experts make a strong case for community involvement being key to happiness. From my own experience, this has certainly been the case. Feeling like you belong to a community is a powerful thing. Not only is their a shared bond, but there is an opportunity to personally become stronger and help others become stronger. 

Happiness Is wasn’t bad. It’s just that I felt as if my life would have been just as complete having not viewed it, while Happy elicited an emotional response that made me glad to have seen it. 


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