Practicing Happiness

by - Thursday, March 28, 2013

As I said last night, I watched the documentary Happy by Roku Belic, at Netflix's unrelenting insistence, and I am so glad I did.  You should go watch it, even though I am about to talk about it a whole bunch. It is a bit of a hodge podge, but I think in a good way, and it is very inspiring. You almost can't help but self-reflect and check yourself while watching this movie.

The film discusses the study of happiness, which is extremely new (especially considering how long mental illness has been studied) and seems to basically boil down to the nervous system and the brain's excretion (forgive me, certain Nurse who reads this) of dopamine. The film suggests that 50% of  our capacity for happiness is genetically determined- just like some people are athletically-inclined, so other people are genetically-inclined to release a lot of dopamine and to therefore be happy.

What is more interesting is that the things people think will make them happy- success, money, etc- only accounts for 10% of people's happiness (they make an interesting point about wealth, in which they argue that no matter how much you have, you always want one step up, so wealth is never satisfying for longterm happiness). The rest of the movie is about what makes up that other 40%.

One of the things I really appreciated about the film was that it talked about spikes in happiness or longterm sort of resting heart rate happiness. They pointed out that we as humans think that spikes in happiness or in tragedy have long sustained effects on our happiness levels, but that is actually not the case. We return to our regular level of emotion much more quickly than we would suspect (they see this as a good thing, and they show a few different stories of resilience). I really love this concept, and I think I have always thought about this in slightly different language.

I always thought of Happiness as being a momentary thing and joy as being the thing that sticks. I firmly believe that it is important to put attention and enthusiasm into the positive things in our lives (birthdays, promotions, learning something new, etc) because it helps balance out the bad. You can't keep bad things from happening, and when they do, you have to face those emotions, but you can throw the balance of life in the other direction by putting the same emotional energy into positive moments and things in your life. I think what I am trying to get at is this concept of the sort of resting heart rate of joy and positivity. I am not sure I have it totally figured out, but this is part of how I manage my emotions and my life, and it was cool to see my abstract ideas described (much better in the film than here) in a more scientific or sociological context.

I also loved that the movie basically argues for the emotional importance of focusing on things other than yourself (the concept of flow), being an active and generous member of a community, and for loving others. I imagine this film could be seen as kind of flatly feel goodery, but I thought it was powerful, and it has put a lot of things on my mind as I try to figure out the next steps for my life and what I would like to prioritize through it. Definitely a good one to watch, and it is only an hour long, so not much of a commitment anyway.

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