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“Happy” Documentary: A Conversation

happy documentary

Happy is an aptly named feature-length documentary that leads viewers on a journey across five continents in search of the keys to happiness. The film addresses many of the fundamental issues we face in today’s society: how do we balance the allure of money, fame and social status with our needs for stronger relationships, health and personal fulfillment?

Trailer for the documentary Happy. Visit TheHappyMovie.com to learn more.

Happy was directed by Roko Belic. For five years while making the film, Belic traveled the world capturing stories of people who were truly happy — and not so happy — taking him from the United States to India to Japan to Denmark and many points in between. The stories he collected from around the globe illustrate what science knows about what makes people happy, what doesn’t, and why happiness matters.

Director Roko Belic talks about how Happy came to be

The film weaves together documentary portraits of human experiences with information from researchers and scientists who study the now popular academic field of happiness, or positive psychology. It presents many ideas about how and why we can pursue more fulfilling, healthier and happier lives.

When I got into happiness research it was 1981. It was not a popular field in psychology. People thought it was flaky, that it was loose. A professor said to me “You can never measure happiness.” Now why they thought you could measure depression — which they were all doing — but you couldn’t measure happiness, I’m not sure.

–Ed Diener, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, University of Illinois, quote from the movie Happy

Happy features interviews with some of the world’s leading scientific experts on the topic, including Ed Diener (who is known as “Dr. Happiness” and has studied happiness for over 35 years), Richie Davidson (a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Davidson studies meditation’s effects on individual happiness), and Sonja Lyubomirsky (Professor of Psychology at the University of California and author of The How of Happiness). Lively animated sequences illustrate some of the science behind happiness.

Happy had a theatrical release in 2011 and was broadcast on PBS. It’s available on Netflix, and OC87: The Obsessive Compulsive, Major Depression, Bipolar, Asperger’s Movie co-directors Bud Clayman and Glenn Holsten watched the film. They met recently to discuss their reactions to the documentary, and to explore their personal journeys with happiness.

Glenn Holsten: So I watched the movie last night and this morning.

Bud Clayman: Wait, we’re starting?

Glenn Holsten: Yeah!

Bud Clayman: What did you think of the Happy documentary?

Glenn Holsten: I really, really, really, really liked it.

Bud Clayman: You did?

Glenn Holsten: I was really suspicious at first with the driver in India who said “We’re all family. We’re all friends. I have nothing, but I’m happy.” I thought it was going to be very simplistic, but it wasn’t. It was deep and thoughtful.

Manoj Singh Pulls a Rickshaw in India - happy documentary

Manoj Singh Pulls a Rickshaw in India

Bud Clayman: So I have [another] question for you, what makes you happy Glenn?

Glenn Holsten: Well, it’s interesting because this movie causes you to reflect on that, doesn’t it? Because everybody goes through — well, not everybody goes through trauma, but a lot of people go through really hard times in the film, and it makes you reflect on your own situation.

The one thing I did think about was how my work makes me happy, and that came up in the section about flow — remember that?

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk on FLOW, the secret to happiness

Bud Clayman: Yeah, flow. Flow’s important.

Glenn Holsten: When you get into a zone, and I know athletes talk about it, but I realize that when I’m [film] editing, time evaporates.

Bud Clayman: You’re in the flow?

Glenn Holsten: When I’m in an editing room working on a project —

Bud Clayman: You forget about yourself.

Glenn Holsten: Yeah, you’re just working with somebody and you get lost in the material, and it’s a very satisfying experience. And that’s another thing I realized. The film points out in the end that community is really important — family, friends and work colleagues.

Bud Clayman: Is that important to you?

Glenn Holsten: Well, I didn’t know it was important to me until I thought about the fact that filmmaking is so collaborative. I always say that you can’t spit without having 15 people involved in the decision —

Bud Clayman: See, a part of me doesn’t like that. Because I had a bad experience in college at Temple [University] that made me unhappy.

Glenn Holsten: But at Temple, were you working solo, or were you working with other people?

Bud Clayman: I did have to work with other people. And it was tough. So what did you think of the film, overall, the Happy film?

Glenn Holsten: I thought it was beautifully executed. Great production values. The animation segments were terrific. I really appreciated the scientific information about how we work, what makes us eligible for happiness. From what I can tell from that movie, it looks like we have about a 50 percent shot at happiness, and the rest is what we do (or what happens to us).

I was very touched by the gentleman who gave up his banking career to go work in Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying.

But I was surprisingly affected by the scene that showed the kids in the middle school who talk with their classmates about being bullied.

Bud Clayman: I was bullied [at camp].

Glenn Holsten: [I was bullied at school], and that scene brought back a lot of deep, sensitive hurt feelings when I watched that kid up there crying in front of his classmates.

“My understanding of what motivated these activities was not anything that came from the outside, but it came from the activity itself. And I gave the name “flow” to this kind of synergy of different aspects of consciousness — where you wish you could go forever because it feels like you are completely fulfilling something that you can do well and that you can see it happening and you feel that nothing else matters.”

 

–Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D., Prof. of Psychology Claremont Graduate University, Author, FLOW, quote from the movie Happy

Bud Clayman: You talked about flow, and I related to what you said about filmmaking. Let me ask you, when you think about happiness, do you think you should start with others, or do you think you should start with yourself.

Glenn Holsten: Before I answer that, can I ask you a question?

Bud Clayman: Sure.

Glenn Holsten: I’m interested in why you picked this movie. Of all the options available on Netflix, why did you pick this one?

Bud Clayman: Well, I went out to lunch one day with [a] friend, and I was very melancholy. Very depressed. I don’t remember why, it was two weeks ago. And we were talking about happiness, and he said “There’s this documentary on Netflix called Happy. So that’s when I looked at it.

Glenn Holsten: And did you want to learn about happiness?

Bud Clayman: Yeah, I did, because I am looking for an answer about happiness. Because I’m miserable a lot of the time. I think I’m looking too hard a lot of the time.

Glenn Holsten: Well, back to your question about whether you look for happiness outside or inside of yourself — I think it has to be looking outside of yourself.

Bud Clayman: That’s interesting. And my therapists have gone a different route with me. They’ve said that it has to begin with me first, my self esteem, and dealing with the hurt. It doesn’t have to be like that for you, obviously. Everybody’s experience is different, but for me with my hurt in my background and what happened.

You know we talked [in OC87] about the “Holocaust Statement” — I’m actually friends with Jon Wolfman now, but that really hurt me. [Bud who has Asperger’s syndrome shut down and became angry with others because one day, after having not shaved or showered for four days, Jon said to him, “You look like something out of the Holocaust.” Bud misinterpreted Jon’s concern for him. He was also renting a room in Jon’s house at the time.] So we’re trying to repair the hurt so I’m not angry with other people, but you obviously had a different experience.

Bud Clayman and Jon Wolfman in the film OC87 - happy documentary

Bud Clayman and Jon Wolfman in the film OC87

Glenn Holsten: I don’t think I’m in my head as much as you are.

Bud Clayman: Yeah, I’m too much in my head — I’m trying to get out of my head more.

Glenn Holsten: You’re working really hard at it!

Bud Clayman: I know!

Glenn Holsten: And in some ways I’m just lucky that I don’t have that as part of my journey. I just don’t have it. I’m very busy, and I do find real meaning and happiness working on films that have some meaning and impact on other people’s lives, like OC87

Bud Clayman: — and Hollywood Beauty Salon.

Glenn Holsten: Yes.

The amazing thing to me about OC87 was how satisfying it was to screen the film at all of those mental health conferences. If you had told me at the beginning of the film journey “Oh, you’ll like screening at the conferences better than the theatrical screening or the film festivals,” I don’t think I would have agreed with you.

But when I saw the film having a direct impact on people who were craving information about something important to their lives, it gave me such energy, and made me happy.

And watching you at the screenings was so great —

Bud Clayman: It was tough for me, that whole experience.

Glenn Holsten: But watching you made me happy. Because I think speaking with people about the film brings out the best in you.

OC87 at the PMHCA Conference in 2010

Bud Clayman: I try.

Glenn Holsten: Do you enjoy that part?

Bud Clayman: I don’t. That’s the thing. It’s tough. Because I feel like I have to be somebody, sometimes, who I’m not. I’ve got to be social, which is very difficult for me.

Glenn Holsten: What about the last screening at Horizon House?

Bud Clayman: That was really great, cause we had a lot of — in Judaism we say “Ruach.” There was a lot of camaraderie, and I have a special warmth towards the African American community. It was great. It was very nice. And I’m going to be speaking at their commencement, the Horizon House commencement ceremonies.

(FROM BUD: Ruach, I believe according to Wikipedia, means Holy Spirit and there was definitely a lot of it in the room at Horizon House that day.)

Glenn Holsten: That’s a really good example of a happy surprise. Something you can’t plan for. In fact it was a modest screening. To be quite honest I wasn’t looking forward to it, It was at the end of a busy week, and you had sent me an email to remind me about it, and I was like “Oh, gosh, yeah. Guess I should go.” But it was a great surprise how vibrant and excited the audience was, and how they testified to the deep impact it made on them, and how they related to so much in the film — especially to your strong mother — and it charged us both. I skipped home from that screening. Those experiences make me happy.

We’ve screened with hundreds of people, but that little audience gave so much to us. A spirit. A lot of spirit.

Bud Clayman: Spirit’s important for happiness?

Glenn Holsten: I think so.

GLENN’S POST-INTERVIEW EMAIL TO BUD:

Glenn Holsten: Did making OC87 make you happy? Or, maybe a better question is — What parts of making OC87 made you happy?

Bud Clayman: In terms of OC87, I’d say the parts when we were out in public and doing location shooting definitely made me happy. Also, of course, the Lost In Space scene was a fantasy come true!!!!

Glenn Holsten: Interesting, because those moments are highly social. They are intense and you’ve got to work with a team of people, a mini community that gathers for the sake of making a movie.

Filming the "Lost In Space" scene for the documentary OC87 - happy documentary

Filming the “Lost In Space” scene for the documentary OC87

“We studied some of the happiest people and we found without exception that all of them had close supportive family and friends. That didn’t mean that they loved everybody or that they got along with everybody, but what it meant was that every one of them had close family and friends.”

 

–Ed Diener, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, University of Illinois, quote from the movie Happy

CONTINUATION OF BUD/GLENN INTERVIEW:

Glenn Holsten: The Happy movie gave me a vocabulary to talk about happiness — the importance of community — both on working outside of yourself and on yourself. I have a 14-year-old son who has materialistic goals, and I want to sit him down and watch this movie with him. I loved how they used science to show us who is happy. A lot of the people with a lot of money and a lot of wealth are not any more happy than anyone else.

[I loved learning about the community in Okonowa.] Is that the place where they say they don’t bury bodies anymore? They cremate them and put all the ashes of the dead together in a community place?

Bud Clayman: I know they had a lot of women who live to 106!

Glenn Holsten: I loved the 106-year-old woman! She drinks sake every night to help her go to
sleep.

Bud Clayman: What are we missing?

Glenn Holsten: Sake!

Bud Clayman: Sake!

Glenn Holsten: But I like that idea that all the bodies were buried together. That makes death and suffering an event shared by the whole community. Very interesting to me. And how about Bhutan? To put happiness on top of a national agenda —

Bud Clayman: Oh, Gross National Happiness. Yeah. I don’t think that would work in America, because people would say you’re encroaching on our freedoms and it’s a capitalist society. It wouldn’t work here.

“In America, for example, we’re about twice as wealthy as we were 50 years ago. But nationally representative surveys of people’s happiness show that happiness has remained stagnant. People aren’t any happier than they were 50 years ago, even though they are living in a lot bigger houses and they have more cars.”

–Tim Kasser, Ph. D., Professor of Psychology, Knox College, quote from the movie Happy

Glenn Holsten: Did you have another question?

Bud Clayman: I did want to say that what I thought was going to bring me happiness, but I’m really working against this, is control. I’m now learning to give up control. To be with other people, to be involved with other things, and to get out of myself. But I thought being strong and being in control was going to bring me happiness. It hasn’t worked. It’s brought me loneliness and isolation.

Glenn Holsten: And where does that come from, this idea that strength and control would bring happiness?

Bud Clayman: It could have been from my parents. Cause they kind of tried to control me, so maybe I’m trying to control others. And domination, you know “I’m better than you” — it’s a competitive thing. You don’t seem to be like that.

Glenn Holsten: Well, I grew up in a family with six kids.

Bud Clayman: You had to learn to cooperate.

Glenn Holsten: Maybe that’s a difference between us. I had no control. I would escape down to the basement of the house for a little privacy.

“We should really be thinking of happiness as a skill, which is no different than learning to play violin or learning to play golf.”

 

–Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, University of Wisconsin, Madison, quote from the movie Happy

Bud Clayman: Are you glad about your upbringing?

Glenn Holsten: Yes, very much so.

Bud Clayman: Because you are able to be social with others.

Glenn Holsten: I think so. Living with a big family gives you that. I shared a lot with my family. And while we had our differences, I think I felt everyone was really rooting for one another.

You know, when thinking about happiness, I think a lot about the words that Jeff Bell shared in OC87 when he said that “purpose and service” are great motivators to get him out of his OCD. I think that’s a lesson for anybody. It’s important to have a purpose. And help others. That came through loud and clear in the Happy film, in the Mother Teresa House of Dying scene. And I thought a lot about Jeff Bell’s words watching that scene.

At the same time I also thought, “We live in America, with all the responsibilities of life, most people can’t drop everything and go work for Mother Teresa like that man did.”

But there’s another comment that stuck out at the end of the documentary by one of the experts where he said “You just have to be your authentic self.” What does that mean to you?

Bud Clayman: That means who you grew up as, you’re going to have to carry that with you, you know? The communal living center in Denmark interested me in the film. I said to myself before you came over, “Maybe I should go and live in Denmark in a community or something.”

Children from Denmark Co-Housing Community - happy documentary

Children from Denmark Co-Housing Community

Glenn Holsten: What about it was attractive to you?

Bud Clayman: Just that they’re social, they’re living with each other, there’s a community there.

Glenn Holsten: They eat meals together.

Bud Clayman: Yeah, they’re not alone. I think there’s a lot of isolation in this country.

Glenn Holsten: Gosh. Sorry, I interrupted you before, you said “Maybe I should move to Denmark” but then I thought —

Bud Clayman: But then the guy said at the end you’ve got to be your authentic self, so then I started to think of the things that make me happy.

The things that make me happy are like watching the Baltimore Orioles, my baseball team. Watching television — I mean I grew up with television, that’s one of the things that made me happy. I did have friends, but I grew up an only child, so I had to make up, do a lot of things on my own.

“And it’s not about “Oh, I must change my life totally. And cut off from my past and I’ll be a better person.” It’s not about that. The trick is to be authentically you.”

–Nic Marks, Centre for Well-Being, New Economics Foundation, quote from the movie Happy

Glenn Holsten: What about going to movies, do you still like that?

Bud Clayman: There are not that many good movies anymore. I do like going to the movies, but I used to go on my own. We’ve gone to a lot of movies together, we’ve had a good time.

Glenn Holsten: I enjoy that a lot.

Bud Clayman: I guess you can’t totally change who you are and go join a monastery — well, I guess you really can join a monastery if you want. We all have a choice.

I do want to say that during the end of the movie they talked about Loving Kindness tapes, and that’s something I’m doing, compassion. There’s a lady named Tara Brach, who does a Loving Kindness and [Forgiveness] tape, and I listen to it every day now.

Glenn Holsten: How long is it?

Bud Clayman: It’s 39 minutes. And sometimes I listen to it twice a day, morning and afternoon. And that’s helped me be more compassionate, hopefully, with others. Because I have Asperger’s, I have trouble taking social perspective, so I’m starting to take the social perspective of others, and that’s easing things up, seeing the other person’s point of view. Which brings us back to what we talked about earlier. Does happiness start with you, or does it start with the other person? I think it needs to be both, because what I’m learning is you can take somebody else’s social perspective, but you can also make what you feel is the right decision for you, too.

Glenn Holsten: And you can also explain to the other person where you’re coming from.

Nic Marks’ TED talk called “The Happiness Manifesto”

Bud Clayman: Exactly, because I think sometimes people — I guess we might differ in that respect. I think there are some people in our society who really don’t take care of themselves, because they label it as being selfish, or something like that. They don’t really take care of their inner stuff and if you don’t do that, you do take it out on other people. You do bring your C-R-A-P to the table and dump on other people.

I think it’s important for both. I don’t know how you feel about that.

Glenn Holsten: I do know that taking care of myself involves physical exercise. More than ever, now that I’m a mid career professional (laughs). No, but I find that more than ever, as life gets more and more full with the job, a relationship and two kids, I find that if I don’t exercise almost daily things get sort of jumbled in my head and I’m not as focused, I’m not as kind to others, and frankly, I’m a little irritable.

But when I do the exercise and I sleep well —

Bud Clayman: Yeah, I need the eight hours a night —

Glenn Holsten: In the film, I was really interested to note that in [the] village where so many people live to be 100, the guy says “We all sleep a lot.” I thought that was interesting.

Bud Clayman: Sleep’s very important.

Glenn Holsten: Sleep is huge for me, and exercise is huge for me and eating healthy is huge for me. And those are the same things when you have a child. It’s really funny as we grow up we lose track of the essential things that you work so hard to make sure your kids have. Why wouldn’t those things help an adult be happy?

I think a movie like this has a real function beyond entertainment, because it gives vocabulary and points of conversation and moments of reflection. I was grateful for it.

Bud Clayman: I liked it too.

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OC87 Recovery Diaries

OC87 Recovery Diaries is an interactive website that features stories of mental health, empowerment and change, created by and for those whose journeys of recovery speak to audiences from all walks of life. This project hopes to touch as many lives as possible and bring light to the lived experiences of recovery from mental illness: what matters, what helps, what’s hard, what might be next? OC87 Recovery Diaries exists to tell stories about how people with mental health challenges have created paths to meaningful lives. We feature stories that inspire and empower, stories that generate discussion and awareness. OC87 Recovery Diaries presents a range of experiences—personal perspectives, recovery innovations, examples of empowerment, strengths and gaps in the mental health system, and efforts to dismantle stigma—all told by people moving through their own recovery journeys.

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