Happy, a documentary by Roko Belic, opens with a rickshaw man in the slums on Kolkata, who the narrator claims is as happy as the average American. Despite his material poverty, the man has a son who makes him feel happy, and neighbors and friends who support him. I’m reminded of something Mother Teresa wrote about the United States:
“The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love.” (from A Simple Path)
With Happy, Belic takes us on a tour across several continents and through current research in psychology to get a fresh perspective at the age-old questions around what makes us happy.
What Controls Happiness
- 50% of happiness is genetic: our genes determine the range of our mood–how happy or unhappy we can be–but thankfully we have some control over where we fall within.
- only 10% is due to circumstances, things like income, social status, location, and age.
- 40% is due to intentional activity, or what you choose to do. Variance is an important factor; trying new things or new ways to do habitual things increases happiness.
You can’t talk about happiness without talking about dopamine, one of several neurotransmitters that plays a role in how good we feel. As we age, we lose dopamine synapses which can lead to less happiness and, if we lose too many, diseases like Parkinson’s. But it seems that, as with many things in the body, we can help losing our dopamine synapses by using them. This makes happiness into a skill to practice–the more we are happy, the more likely we’ll be happy. This is a wake-up call to me, as I have a tendency, when faced with difficulty, to hunker down and accept being miserable for a while as the cost of being happy later on. But accepting unhappiness like this actually makes it harder to be happy in the future.
What Causes Happiness
- States of flow, in which we’re fully absorbed in a task that is neither too easy (boring) nor too difficult (frustrating).
- Having a support network
- In one study, people asked to count 5 blessings once a week became happier.
- In a similar experiment, people were asked to perform random acts of kindness, and saw an even greater increase in happiness.
And, at least in my case, watching this film.