Director: Roko Belic
Wadi Rum, 2011

This document captures notes from a documentary (film) on the topic of happiness. It's unusual for me to do this, but as I was watching the film, it occurred to me that much of what is done in terms of user experience and customer experience is designed to alleviate the discomfort of a person who is being subjected to a process - in effect, minimizing the negative effects - whereas little consideration seems to be given to maximizing the positive effects, which is, in an oblique way, what this documentary is about.

Since it's notes on a video presentation, my sense is it's particularly prone to editorial intrusion - that the degree to which perception of the viewer (me) filters, augments, and otherwise alters the experience is much higher than when reading the printed word.

As such, the notes below are likely to be tainted and the intent of the "author" is significantly subverted by my own experience and interpretation. I will at times attempt to identify information taken verbatim from the film, but for the most part, this entire document will be a series of subjective editorial notes.

Ultimately the film did not end as strong as it began, and I don't feel that it delivered on the potential I had expected of it, but there is nonetheless adequate content of sufficient interest to preserve these notes.


Opening montage: images from pop culture - magazines, advertisements, etc. that use "happiness" and "unhappiness" as being topics of great interest in society. Followed by a few man-on-the street interviews with people who were asked "what do you want out of life" - the consistent response that "I want to be happy."

Studies in psychology seem to be focused on unhappiness - ridding people of their misery, rather than helping them to become happy. Interview with Ed Diener, who began research into the topic in 1980 and got little regard from his colleagues - psychology as a profession didn't seem to care about the notion of happiness, but were fixed on diagnosing and treating specific problems.

Over the past thirty years, this has changed: in the 1990s, the topic go wider recognition, and in the present time he feels it is "absolutely amazing" the number of people who are interested. A new field, Positive Psychology, has emerged and there are many magazine articles and books on the topic, and in the academic world it is the focus of research.

Diener suggests that the approach taken to happiness is largely backwards: it is assumed that happiness was the outcome of achieving goals. But he suggests that it is a state of mind that facilitates the achievement of goals.

He describes research methods: interviewing people in various cultures to determine their self-reported level of happiness, re-examining people over time to determine how their level of happiness changes.

Profile: a rickshaw driver in India (?) who lives in what westerners would consider to be abject poverty and hardship - but when assessed in a study, it was found he is as happy as the average westerner. In the interview he speaks to the hardships of his life: physical labor outdoors, his crude dwelling and basic diet. But he also speaks to the sources of his happiness: his family and his community.

The Causes of Happiness

An identical-twin study suggests that happiness is determined by genetics - a "genetic set point" or "genetic set range." Sonja Lyubomirski, a psychology professor ad UC Riverside, asserts that events and situations can cause a temporary shift in a level of happiness, but people generally return to this point or range.

A breakdown:

That is, the most controllable factor, accounting for that last 40%, suggests that people are happy as a result of the things they choose to do - and they have the ability to control it.

Profile: a tour guide in the bayous of Louisiana, who seems to lead a solitary life, but who finds happiness in observing nature. Perhaps this is meant to imply that happiness is not necessarily a social phenomenon, or perhaps the point is to demonstrate that this person, largely unburdened by the daily grind of urbanized existence, has the ability to choose his own activities.

Physiological Considerations

Read Montague and Gregory Burns are interviewed.

Neuroscience makes a strong connection between positive/negative moods and dopamine levels in the brain.

As people age, they lose dopamine emitters and receptors. It has not been observed that they are capable of regenerating themselves. Where too many of these emitters/receptors are lost, the result is Parkinson's disease.

It is also suggested that these emitters atrophy from disuse - and people who use them more often tend to retain them for longer periods of time.

Physical activity is one of the most effective ways of maintaining dopamine levels in the brain - though with the qualification that routine exercise becomes drudgery, and it is more effective if you get physical stimulation in "unusual ways." It's the combination of physical and mental stimulation that is effective.

(EN: Paused the video to consider whether this might be understating the value of mental stimulation devoid of physical activity. This is likely navel gazing, but as a person who leads a sedentary and contemplative lifestyle, often in the company of others who do the same, I have neither witnessed nor experienced a significant dearth of happiness. The film seems to be moving along and I have some doubt this will be considered.)

Profile: a old (or at least older) man in Brazil who identifies himself as a surfer, as he has been surfing almost daily for over fifty years. He considers himself happy, and considers the source of his happiness to be his leisure activity and leading a simple life in a small and isolated community of people with the same passion for surfing.

Happiness as Engagement

Interview with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who studied athletic people whose typical lives are not distinguished in that they had little wealth or status, but whose happiness derives from their leisure activity. Specifically, following his theory of "flow," people become deeply engaged in what they are doing because the activity is mentally stimulated. People in a state of flow forget the outside world - their problems, even themselves - and focus on the activity.

Athletes speak of being "in the zone" - but it is also can be derived from other activities, such as their profession. Profile: a short-order chef who has been doing the same job for years, who is happy at his job because of the constant engagement in the work.

Happiness as Overcoming Adversity

Interview with Daniel Gilbert, an author on the topic of happiness. He considers how much impact events have - people believe that if good or bad things happen, they will be ecstatic or devastated for a long time. However, it is for a very short time - in fact, people who are devastated or ecstatic for a very short time. The euphoria or depression wears off quickly.

Profile: A woman who led an active lifestyle, until she accidentally dragged and run over by a truck and suffered severe physical trauma and disfigurement that left her disabled for the better part of a decade. Naturally, the recovery was slow and tedious, but she reports being a happier person today - and that in some ways the tragedy that befell her led to a greater appreciation of life.

Interviews with a few psychologists: the common perception is that adversity is universally bad and that it leads to an ongoing condition of misery. But scientific evidence does not support this. There is a negative reaction to adversity, but after the incident, people return to their baseline rather quickly, and even find pleasure in overcoming adversity.

Happiness and Materialism

Along with "happiness", interviews with people reflect that there is a widespread belief that money or other material goods.

Interview with Tim Kasser: this is supported by common cultural beliefs that wealth results in happiness. In the present age, wealth has gone up significantly - people are about twice as wealthy now as fifty years ago. Meanwhile, surveys on happiness has found little to no change.

A contrast: anyone who believes money doesn't buy happiness should speak to a homeless person - they'll find that it can. Anyone who believes having a lot of money guarantees happiness should talk to a celebrity - they'll also find that it is not necessarily true.

When money buys you out of a burden, it increases happiness - but once you have basic needs met, more money does little good. The difference between a person earning $5,000 a year and one who earns $50,000 is dramatic ... the difference between a person who earns $50,000 and one who earns $500,000 is not that dramatic - and in fact, often is seen to work in the opposite direction.

The "hedonic treadmill" theory maintains that people become accustomed to a certain level of wealth. In general, when circumstances changes such that a person gains significantly, they become inured to their material possessions and are no longer made happy by them. The same is true in reverse, when a person falls on ill fortune, they suffer some degree of misery for the material comforts they have lost, but eventually their happiness returns to their genetic set point.

Profile: return to the Louisiana tour guide, and his extended community of people whose lifestyles are very modest, but who are very happy people. They laugh as they share stories about their material deprivation, though they tend to focus more on the deprivation of the past. Even though they recognize that their present lifestyle is plain, they feel they have accomplished much and are happy with their achievements.

Sources of Happiness

Studies of happiness find a strong correlation between a person's happiness and their social connections. Diener reports that "without exception" the happiest people all have a significant group of family and close friends.

Another researcher (Kasser) considers the difference between the kinds of goals that people pursue to gain happiness, and makes a distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic goals focus on things that a person takes from the outside world (money, status, and image) whereas intrinsic focus on internal feelings that arise from engaging in an activity (a sense of accomplishment, a sense of being connected, or a sense of belonging).

Intrinsic and extrinsic tend to be opposite to one another - and more significantly, people who pursue extrinsic goals are significantly less happy than those who pursue intrinsic goals.

This explains some of the differences between cultures: those that are more materialistic tend to be more materially success (as this is what people pursue), but are less happy.

The film considers Japan, which has achieved a great deal of economic growth since the second world war, but is a toxic lifestyle - the term "karoshi" (excessive labor death) describes a culture in which people are focused on doing the things necessary to achieve wealth (working long hours) at the expense of being socially connected. The instances of stress-related illness as well as illnesses exacerbated by stress is much higher than in any other country.

By contrast, Bhutan is another developing Asian nation that has recognized that "national happiness" is a priority, and considers the contentment of its people to be of greater importance than material wealth. It's conceded that this national happiness initiative is fairly recent and that it will take time to observe whether it has an appreciable effect on health and welfare of its citizens.

Next, Denmark is considered, which also ranks highly among the most consistently happy nations. The Dutch focus on promoting quality of life. In particular, the film takes interest in "co-housing" in which people (voluntarily) join group homes, multiple families in specific communities, sometimes in the same building, in which people live communally.

Religion is considered a source of happiness - perhaps because it has about it an element of community - but it's also found that religious people are not happy. In fact, many of those who take a fundamentalist stance on religion, especially when it breeds intolerance and hatred for others, are among the least happy people.

Results of Happiness

Happiness is often considered a goal rather than a state of mind - that we work to achieve happiness, and once there, we are "blissful and content." But research suggests that happiness is a state of being that exists, rather than being achieved, and that those who are happy are more productive, healthier, and live longer.

The film looks to Okinawa, a place known for longevity, and has the highest percentage of people who live to 100 years or longer. In contrast to the rest of Japan, Okinawa is very pastoral, the pace of life is slower, and people report a high level of happiness. Life is more leisurely, and there is a greater sense of community.

One researcher (Montague) suggests that social action - whether cooperative or competitive - it elicits dopamine signals, just as if they were taking a narcotic drug.

Random Stuff

It seems to become frayed at the end:

The film focuses for a time on a motivational speaker at a middle school who counsels children about bullying and being generally hateful top others. Not much of a point to it, just an interesting note that the nature of the problem of being in a disconnected society is widespread and well known.

The film turns to the Saan Busmen in Namibia, a tribe that is considered to be more closely related to our ancient ancestors than any other culture today. They remain a hunter-gatherer society that is little touched by technology, where there is a strong sense of community among the members of the tribe.

Cut to a speech by the Dalai Lama, who speaks of connectedness among people as being a matter of our nature - the initial dependence of a child on its mother. He does not consider this to be a matter of political or religious belief, but something that simply exists by virtue of nature.

Cut to "compassion meditation" which is a new-age practice, but examining accomplished practitioners using MRI show that activity in the brain is significantly increased by the practice, and that in long-term meditation practitioners, it's suggested that the physiology of the brain (the thickness of certain cortical membranes) is affected.

Another researcher challenged test groups to do different things: to regularly reflect on the things that make them happy, or to undertake the effort to perform random acts of kindness. It's suggested that both have a positive impact on the person's level of happiness, though the latter group shows greater improvement.

Cut to a profile of a man who was an executive in a financial corporation, who later devoted himself to aiding the poor and sick in India and has found greater fulfillment and happiness in doing so. He describes performing service to others as an investment, and the emotional rewards as being paid back with interest.


The film builds toward the conclusion that being happy requires undertaking action that makes us happy - and that for the most part, doing these things does not require any material wealth, but merely an investment of time, and a dedicate effort to making yourself happy.