"Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" is perhaps the most important phrase in the our Declaration of Independence. Commonly referred to as the "unalienable rights" of Americans, it is ingrained in our collective psyche.
"Life?" Sure, we all have a right to live.
"Liberty?" Got it.
But, "the pursuit of happiness?"
Is happiness something that we can really pursue?
If so, how would we define what happiness is, and when would we know if or when we've got it?
These were the central questions I asked myself and random Americans as I traveled coast-to-coast. The result is the film "Happiness Is."
First, looking specifically at the phrase "the pursuit of happiness," I asked philanthropists, scholars, the occasional celebrity (including John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson), spiritual leaders (including the Dalai Lama who was visiting the U.S. at the time), and a wide range of Americans rich and poor, what their definition of happiness was. Luckily, I didn't find too many pat answers. Instead, I found thoughtful insights and some surprisingly common ground. I found that the process was even helping to guide me through my own personal journey towards the elusive (but obtainable) goal of contentment.
I guess you could even say that "Happiness Is" serves as my own personal roadmap to happiness. Allow me to share just a few of the many things I discovered in making this film.
1. Money can buy happiness. That's right. The fact is, if you don't have all of your basic needs met, you can buy things that will make you happier... like all the things that serve our basic needs as humans: food, shelter, safety, clean water and so on. If all of those needs are not met, life can be miserable, and even dangerous. So a person can definitely find an underlying baseline of happiness (albeit, one that may be taken for granted) by meeting these basic requirements. However! For someone like me (and many of us) who has all of these basics needs met, nothing I can buy will make me truly happier. Nope, not even that new Canon 7D camera with high definition video.
2. Try downward comparison for a change. This one was introduced to me by one of our cast members, Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project. Gretchen suggested that I escape the habit of comparing my life to people that have more than I do. This might explain why so many happiness studies suggest that people in poorer countries report higher levels of happiness than Americans do. It's because they are comparing their lives to the people around them. So, their level of happiness is relative to the poor people around them. What we Americans often take for granted, such as air-conditioning or a basic grocery store visit, can bring great satisfaction to a poor family living in Somalia. Ok, so the next time I get jealous of the surround-sound home theater system at my friend Bob Fonseca's house, all I have to do is think of the millions of people who are too poor to own a TV and voila!, it no longer bothers me. I'm just lucky to have a TV (or two).
3) Giving brings contentment. Wrapping up the long journey of making this film, I returned home to Austin, Texas with 100+ hours of film footage, but there was still had no 'ending' in sight. It was frustrating not having a way to tie the many concepts of happiness together. Then one morning, I took the advice of our producer Tracy Marino and met up with Alan Graham. I had heard his name before but I wasn't sure where. All I knew about him was what that he was the founder of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, an organization that provides food, clothing, and "dignity" for the homeless in cities across the U.S.
Alan invited us to join him as he ventured out to feed some very hungry people. I wouldn't describe Alan as someone who appears happy on the outside, but I could see that he was very happy on the inside. He had a level of contentment that became more and more apparent to me as I spent time with him. And as the day came to an end, I realized that I learned more about happiness in that one day than I did in the two years of traveling the back-roads of America.
Now that we're releasing the film, we know exactly what we needed to do. We've decided to support nonprofit charities in need of help. By taking the film on a screening tour around the country, we can serve those in need by using the film as a tool to inspire more people to find their own personal contentment through the act of giving. Since our first public screening, "Happiness Is" has raised thousands of dollars for local charities nationwide. Now, more and more nonprofit organizations are turning to the film for help.
Today, we're working to get to as many places as possible, including our next stops in Iowa, Michigan and Chicago where the film will be hosting a benefit screening for The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless on December 10th.
To learn more about the film, the nonprofit screening tour and our team who made it all possible, visit us at HAPPINESS IS and to learn more about volunteering in your own community, visit the Huffington Post's own Impact Page Impact News and Opinion.
Follow Andrew Shapter on Twitter: www.twitter.com/andrewshapter