All around the globe people report a sense of happiness that eludes many Americans. In fact, according to happiness surveys by organizations such as the World Database of Happiness, the United States ranks consistently lower than many other countries on the happiness scale. Why is life satisfaction so much easier to come by in other places? The “Happy”   film crew ( identified these key factors from man-on-the-street interviews and conversations with research scientists.

1. A Sense of Friendship and Community

Having strong relationships and a large support network is a leading happiness factor all over the world—whether it is in the slums of Calcutta, in the desert of South Africa or on the streets of Scandinavia. In Denmark, which consistently ranks first as the happiest nation on earth, most Danes (as high as 97 percent according to believe they have someone other than a family member that they can rely upon. “Happy” introduces a single Danish mother who lives in a multi-generational co-housing community. Both she and her children extol the benefits of this group -living arrangement, which is not unlike having a large extended family. The mother says she no longer feels the stress of having to constantly juggle responsibilities, such as shopping and cooking every day. Now it’s just a few times a month. She also appreciates having other adults around to keep an eye on her children.

2. Caring and Doing for Others

According to scientists interviewed in “Happy,” compassionate thoughts and generous actions actually change the chemistry of the brain, producing dopamine, a hormone that is believed to trigger happiness. Altruistic deeds also stimulate the left frontal cortex, which researchers have identified as the brain’s happiness center. In addition to feeling good, people report that doing something for others adds meaning to their life. A former banker tells Belic how happy and fulfilled he now feels volunteering at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Destitute and Dying. He explains that even the simple act of offering a cup of water to a dying man brings him a great deal of joy.

3. A Personal Involvement with Nature

Many people report that time spent outdoors is a very joyful experience and, like compassionate outreach, helps them connect with something larger than themselves. In the film, Captain Blanchard, a tour guide in the Louisiana bayou, delights in knowing that no two days will ever be the same. “This is a paradise to me,” he grins. “You don’t know what you are going to see.” As the crew follows Blanchard in his boat, a crocodile slides his head out of the water and an egret gets ready to dine.

4. A Balanced Life, with Plenty of Leisure Time

Workaholics definitely don’t rank high on the happiness scale. In fact, in Tokyo, Japan, the focus on production over contentment has led to karoshi or death from overwork—even among young workers in their 20s and 30s who die suddenly of a heart attack or stroke. On the island of Okinawa, however, which is also part of Japanese culture, there are more centenarians than anywhere else in the world. Perhaps it’s because the islanders care for each other and have never forsaken their tradition of intergenerational communication and connection. In Bhutan, the government focuses not on a gross national product (GNP) index but on gross national happiness.

5. Engaging in Activities that One Finds Enjoyable

Whatever one likes to do can ramp up the happiness meter by putting one in a state of “flow.” According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, “Flow is the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The experience itself is so enjoyable they will do it, even at great cost, for the sheer sake of it.” In the movie a cook dances as he works and a surfer delights in his sport.

As the documentary demonstrates, owning things is a minor factor in creating a satisfying and happy life. Once basic human needs are met, such as food, shelter and health care, “Happy” says it’s your DNA, your sense of balance and community that have the greatest impact on happiness.


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