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Oldspeak happiness: a review of the film Happy

05 Jan 2012 | Ben Irvine

Charm works wonders; which is why persuasion is often sweetened with entertainment. Examples of this can readily be found in theatre, literature, cinema, song, comedy, political broadcasting, and, of course, advertising. The film Happy belongs in this broad tradition, but its cast of characters is anything but stereotypical, especially when compared to onscreen protagonists today. Instead of the usual figures of "inspiration" - pouting actors, fawning politicians, grinning goons selling car insurance - Happy introduces us to pensioners from Okinawa, Danish co-housing inhabitants, Namibian Bushmen, a disfigured former debutante from America, a surfer from Brazil, an Indian rickshaw driver, an amateur crab fisherman from Louisiana, and some unusually down-to-earth academics.

The film enlists all these unglamorous people in order to explain where happiness comes from. Strikingly, their most potent tool for the task is their most natural one - their smiles: genuine, warm, deep, long, enticing smiles. In a culture where vox-pops keep popping up all over the place, like those whack-a-moles in the fairground game, it's unusual to see such lingering earnestness. It makes you pay very close attention.

In doing so, you are reminded of some plain, simple truths, which many of us had forgotten amid the distracting sensory bombardment of modern life: enduring happiness comes from such staples as supportive families, friendly communities, calm mindfulness, regular exercise, enjoying food in company, helping others, and savouring the beauty of the natural world. All of which - note - are relatively inexpensive, if not cost-free.

Note, also, that we're not usually reminded of any of this. The psychology of human admiration is somewhat trigger-happy, a fact which consumerism exploits, day in day out, in persuading us to part with our money. Typically, a happy-looking person is paraded before our captivated eyes, and we instinctively resolve to emulate whatever they are doing at the time. Driving a big car. Carrying a designer handbag. Drinking an expensive bottle of wine. Much of human behaviour is associative, and, unless we are given good reason to do otherwise, we'll keep pressing levers when we're promised rewards. The problem is, many of these "rewards" not only fail to make us happy, they actually make us unhappy, through encouraging futile one-upmanship rather than sociability.

Watching Happy gives us reason to pause. The experience is like waking up from a caffeine-fuelled nightmare - one in which you were half-conscious, albeit manically suggestible. Real happiness, we rediscover, is delightfully normal; nothing we didn't know about already, deep-down; it is a nostalgic feeling, which we can amplify, any time we like, into real and present pleasures. We are like the character 'Winston' in George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984, inundated by phoney promises of happiness, a 'newspeak' version which is in fact a big lie; yet, unlike him, we can choose to embrace oldspeak happiness, the real thing, instead.

In reminding us of this, director Roko Belic's Happy is a hugely inspiring film. Its powerful effect was in evidence on the evening it was screened by Cambridge University's Well-being Institute. In the discussion session, the atmosphere was exceptionally warm, relaxed and friendly - as it was during an impromptu meal afterwards which was enjoyed by an enthusiastic group of strangers who wanted to carry on chatting late into the night. It was as if the characters in Happy had shared with us their relaxed sense of companionship. We must keep that mood moving.

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Ben Irvine is editor of the Journal of Modern Wisdom and Cycle Lifestyle magazine.

Action for Happiness first screened Happy in London in October 2011. Members are now putting on local screenings in community venues and cinemas all around the country and beyond. Find out how you could put on a local screening.

On 11 Feb 2012, hundreds of venues across the world will be screening Happy. Find out more, including how to host your own screening at World Happy Day.

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