The latest feel-good documentary by Roko Belic (of the Oscar-nominated “Genghis Blues”), “Happy” ponders contemporary happiness via visits with folks around the globe who’ve chased down that bluebird, as well as experts armed with fairly concrete conclusions on the matter. Funded by executive producer Tom Shadyac, whose first-person meditation on similar themes, “I Am,” recently toured theaters, this is likewise a pleasant if lightweight plea for folks to quit the rat race and stop and smell the roses. Currently playing San Francisco’s Roxie Cinema, docu has modest prospects in all formats.
While depression, anxiety and other undesirable mental conditions have long been studied, only recently have neuroscientists, psychologists and others begun seriously inquiring into the measurement and causes of happiness. Their results so far point in directions that aren’t exactly revelatory: Happiness increases the more one is physically active, performs actions for the benefit of others rather than for oneself, and feels close to family and friends.
Having the opposite effect are obsessive pursuit of wealth, material goods, status and image. It is noted that there is significant difference in contentment between people who barely scrape by and people whose needs are comfortably met, but little difference between those who feel they have enough and the rich. In other words, love isn’t the only thing money can’t buy you.
Illustrating such concepts are interviewees who’ve found happiness in simplicity and/or collective-mindedness: residents of a Danish co-housing community who share all domestic duties, including child rearing; a 60-year-old Brazilian surfer (nice work if you can get it); Namibian tribes living off the land, much as all mankind did millennia ago; a German ex-banker now working in one of Mother Teresa’s charity wards; the cheerful populace of isle Okinawa, world longevity capital due to healthy eating, valued traditions and constantly mingling generations. (By contrast, mainland Japan has the globe’s worst suicide rate, thanks to pervasive workaholism routinely leading to exhaustion and despair.)
The pic’s scientific aspects are most compelling, such as the claim that happiness may well be 50% determined by genetics, only 10% by circumstances like social/economic status, with the other 40% still unknown. “Happy,” however, is mostly content to channel-surf lifestyles for inspiration. The Dalai Lama is duly heard from, as well as comedian Michael Pritchard (recalling telethon-mode Jerry Lewis as he decries bullying to junior high kids).
One might grouse that not everybody is in a position to give up current responsibilities and literally go surfin’ — as that Brazilian dude and Malibu-resettled Belic himself chose to. But then, this is not the kind of documentary to raise complicated questions that might rain on its chosen message. “Happy” is, in fact, much like the surfing docus of yore, offering an hour or so of vicarious escape into blissful, stress-free environs before viewers have to go home and deal with real life. Still, its recommended dosages of meditation, compassion, relaxation, spirituality, et al., are always welcome input, even if for most viewers, the placebo effect will wear off all too soon.
Roko and brother Adrian Belic’s lensing captures some handsome international sights, while the soundtrack offers global-sampler sounds. Voiceover narrator is by “celebrated transformational leader” Marci Shimoff, prolific co-author of such tomes as “Chicken Soup for the Mother’s Soul 2” and “Love for No Reason: 7 Steps to Creating a Life of Unconditional Love.”