The journal of the Center for Documentary Arts, a nonprofit initiative to bear witness to suffering and promote the common good through the arts. At the crossroads of art, ethics, faith, and social justice, the Center brings together makers and thinkers whose work advances beauty, compassion, collaboration, dignity, and mercy.

16 November 2011

Pursuit of happiness

Scene from "Happy" by Roko Belic, courtesy Wadi Rum Pictures

I have been thinking about happiness, in preparation for our screening Sunday of Roko Belic's inspiring new documentary Happy (see details below). Happiness is one of those big subjects that can occupy an evening till late into the night, one in which the phrase "define your terms" drifts repeatedly to mind. What are we talking about when we're talking about happy?

St. Augustine's observation about time is true of happiness as well. I know what it is until someone asks me to explain it. It's a great encompassing word, describing at once an inalienable right of man and a McDonald's Happy Meal. Of what is happiness made: joy? security? love? comfort? ease? wealth? Does it take Valium? or Viagra? Each writes his or her private formula, of different constituents and proportions. Yet what we might call "true happiness" is not so subjective as to elude science entirely.  The field of "positive psychology"—the study of well-being instead of affliction—is less than fifteen years old, but in that short time researchers have reached conclusions on what constitutes the balanced sense of pleasure, engagement, and meaning that produces sustained and sustaining happiness. These findings, and how they manifest themselves around the world, are what Belic explores in Happy.

Not to spoil the movie, but come close and I'll whisper a secret: Happiness doesn't come from stuff. No TV or iPhone, yacht or home in Majorca, can in itself transmute an unhappy heart. Financial security is important, but not great wealth. Nor is fame or celebrity, style or fashion, power or beauty. Nothing our consumer culture works so hard to get us to covet is the secret ingredient.

Where does happiness come from, then? In a word, connection: the manifestation of our innate impulse toward understanding, sympathy, fellowship. This quality, and all that flows from it—curiosity, kindness, gratitude, attention—determine our individual happiness and our happiness as a society.

One important element of connectedness is the experience of feeling part of something bigger than yourself, which, among other things, also happen to be a working definition of democratic citizenship. It was this element that Jefferson invoked in the Declaration of Independence when he wrote that "the pursuit of happiness" is among humanity's inalienable rights. The great statesman was not referring to the treadmill of getting and spending when he penned these words. His use of  pursuit had nothing to do with chasing acquisitions. It was the word's other definition that interested him,  its sense of action, activity, even vocation. Similarly, when Jefferson wrote of happiness, he wasn't thinking in terms of pleasure. In the tradition of the Greek philosophers, the concept Jefferson wished to convey was closer to virtue.

To the Founders, the "pursuit of happiness" signified a calling to virtue, a calling only a free citizen could answer. Virtue, to Jefferson, was the exercise of power for the common good; the "pursuit" of  such "happiness" was something one no good man with the gift of liberty could fail to take part in.Which brings us back to connection and Roko Belic's film. I have written in this blog before about the need for a new narrative that redefines our individual and collective desires and intentions, to help us better meet the vast challenges we face together. Happy leads us in that direction, embodying the positive energy it describes and advocates.  

As I was preparing this post, I came upon a recent interview with a bestselling author. The author, a man much beloved by readers around the world, was asked the age-old, open-ended, loaded question, "Are you happy?" and without missing a beat, answered provocatively and definitively, "No!" "Are you ever happy?" he was asked again. "No," the bestselling author asserted. "I am never happy." And he went on:

It is not one of my goals to be happy. One of my goals in life was to have challenges. It was to have joy. And at the end of the day, it was to have fun, which I do have, and I'm sure you do have, in the sense that you and I were never satisfied, were never happy.  We need the next step, we need the next mountain to climb, we need to take this pebble out of our shoes and continue walking.


This obviously struck the speaker as a heroic stance, but it's not one uncommon among artists and others with a higher purpose. One encounters a similar idea in Baudelaire and Joyce, Lawrence and Dylan, and countless others who have mined the depths: happiness is a trap; it blunts your edge and blocks the entry to regions where terrible beauties dwell. This is a thorny aspect of happiness, one that gives a welcomed texture to the pursuit of the idea. Is such a compromise implied in the notion of happy? Or does a false distance exist between freedom and connection?  Roko Belic's Happy describes a potential we have in our grasp, one that, if set in motion, will transform lives. What role will, can, should artists play in that happy new world?

Happy will be screened on November 20 at 4 pm at the Opalka Gallery theater, Sage College of Albany.   After the screening, writer and educator Mary Judd, who has written extensively on positive psychology and is associated with director Roko Belic, will lead a discussion. Further information about the film is here. Directions to the screening are available at the Opalka Gallery website.


Happy - A Documentary Trailer from Wadi Rum Films on Vimeo.

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