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.


Ed said...

I'd be interested in what the common use of the word "happiness" was at the time of the writing of the Declaration since writers use words to communicate, and would be unlikely to use a definition that wasn't current.

Also, are you saying that Jefferson meant "connectedness" or "virtue" when he said "happiness," or both?

See you at the movie!

Timothy Cahill said...

Ed, I ought to have added a link to the article I referenced which discusses the origins of Jefferson's use of the word 'happiness,' in the context of the Declaration. Sorry, afraid I don't know how to make a live link in the comments section, but here's the url: - disqus_thread

See you Sunday.

Timothy Cahill said...

PS -- I've now added the link to the original post, for anyone interested.

Timothy Cahill said...

Some hours later: I've been researching how to do this, so let's try it: here is the link to the Jefferson definition. Cheers.

Claudia R said...

Very very interesting post. Particularly challenging the question you pose about whether happiness blunts our mining the depths. Must you be driven and never satisfied to be highly accomplished? Isn't there a way to feel satisfaction and peace in what you've accomplished while still realizing that you can continue to mine the depths? I think it's shortsighted -- in a rather Western way of thinking -- to say that being happy ends all discovery. Thanks so much for posting this provocative piece!

JoAnn F. Axford said...

Bravo Tim!

Anonymous said...

i'd love to see the film. this subject is often on my mind. currently i am working on (mulling over) expectations of/attachings of as regards happiness, and how to avoid those pitfalls. very interesting to read your words about connections- that also has been on my mind. thanks for such a grand post.

Ed said...

Happiness seems like a state of bland contentment, I'm not sure that it should be our goal in life. Clams are happy.

If you go to the ancient myths, Gilgamesh or Genesis, you find a coming of human consciousness described that includes some misery. Sweat of brow, guilt, shame, pain in childbirth come along with the knowledge of good and evil. Being a human has some scratch to it, we shouldn't want it any other way.

msgjudd said...

Hi Tim!
Thank you so much for the opportunity to show "Happy" and carry on a discussion afterwards. To field questions and comments from 12 year olds on up shows that the film and topic really resonate with many people. It's a great discussion starter!

I am so glad to read the comments here -- and especially want to note the comment from Ed on Nov. 25. He brings up a really important point about the relentless pursuit of happiness by some people-- that many people view happiness as almost a black & white issue. You either have it or you don't, and once you get it, everything will be rosy. That happiness is independent of sadness, suffering, sweat, etc...

This is what is fascinating to me about the research into what actually does bring people happiness -- that often it is not at all what we expect to make us happy (until we learn otherwise -- note the research of Daniel Gilbert: we are not very good at predicting what will make us happy or unhappy).

Many people strive for a happiness that they feel will be free of "hardships". But, our brains thrive on contrasts -- good challenges to our mind, body, "soul". Ideally, we can navigate through life's contrasts with the freedom to be ourselves. This is where good resilience tools come in handy -- especially for young people -- think about the bullying scene. Fortunately, some of the happiness research is resulting in specific, evidence-based resilience building tools that are helping kids. Unfortunately, as depression rates show, for many of us, happiness is definitely not a common state. So, the more awareness that these researchers can bring to how to build happiness/life satisfaction, authentically and intrinsically the better.

It is often when people do make an external version of happiness their life's goal that they are, in fact, not very happy -- because unfortunately, too often it is in pursuit of things that aren't truly fulfilling.

Many of the people shown in the film are experiencing joy and happiness right along with navigating difficulties. They have an awareness of what makes them happy.

I'd love to know what those of you who saw the film are still remembering -- which scenes stand out to you and why?

Ed said...

I like what Claudia says about happiness not ending all discovery, and msgjudd's comment about happiness having an external quality. I would criticize my own comment by saying, as msgjudd does, that happiness can tolerate a lot of stress, both positive and negative.

Happiness is a useful concept but the term is too broad to go without qualification. We should start with: What metrics are we using? What do we mean by happiness? If Denmark is the happiest country, how was that determined? What exactly are we talking about?

msgjudd said...

A quick note for those interested in much more information on the research into Happiness and Well Being-- The January-February issue of Harvard Business Review is a special double issue -- cover: The Value of Happiness -- How employee well-being drives profits. This issue includes an entire section filled with articles on the subject of happiness research. The interview with Daniel Gilbert (author of Stumbling on Happiness) is well worth the read -- addressing many of the questions raised in our posts. Enjoy!

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