The Happy Movie is a great documentary out from director Roko Belic, who spent several years tracking down happiness—one of the most elusive things that all of us want—in different parts of the world. What he found is surprising: Not only did he find that the average American is no happier than a rickshaw driver living in the slums of India, but he also spoke with researchers who say that things like status and money have a remarkably small bearing on our overall happiness. We interviewed Belic to find out why happiness is a growing health concern (and what to do about it):
When we think of America’s health problems, we mostly think of things like obesity, diabetes, heart disease…So why should we be focused on something like happiness?
We should prioritize our individual happiness for two main reasons. First, happiness is good for you. And second, it is good for everyone else. Happy people have better relationships, do better at school and on the job and get more promotions. They make more money, are more creative and are more likely to find solutions to problems. They are less likely to be sued or involved in conflicts. Happy people are healthier and they even live longer than unhappy people. But the benefits don’t stop there. Happy people are less likely to hurt someone, commit a crime or pollute the environment. They are more likely to help a stranger in need and advocate for justice and human rights. Happy people make the world a better place.
Endless studies tell us how age, race, gender, family history, and other genetic factors make us more or less likely to be happy. Are some of us doomed to poor mental health?
Though there are some people who may need clinical help and medication to alleviate severe depression, most of us can increase our happiness using techniques that are within our control.
How does physical health figures into overall happiness?
Physical fitness can have a very significant impact on your happiness. Our brains contain a chemical called dopamine that is necessary for feelings of pleasure and happiness. The best way to maintain the health of our dopamine systems is through physical aerobic exercise. Physical fitness is not a requirement for happiness, but it can be a major contributor if you want to increase your happiness.
Most of us know that exercise makes us feel better, but your movie says certain kinds of physical activity might be better than others for boosting happiness. Why is something like surfing so great for happiness?
There are a number of reasons why physical activity increases our happiness. First, physical aerobic activity keeps the dopamine system in our brains healthy. That system is necessary for feelings of pleasure and happiness (see previous response). When exercising or playing a sport a person may get into “flow,” a state of being where she is completely focused on her activity. It’s an experience shared by surfers, yogis, rock climbers, runners, figure skaters etc. People who get into that state regularly are happier.
If your activity gets you around people you like to be with, that’s another boost to your happiness, because having good relationships is one of the best things you can do to be happy. Team sports and activities where you meet the same people regularly (park, gym, yoga center, beach etc.) so that you connect with them can increase your happiness significantly.