A dirt poor rickshaw puller in a slum in India once told me that he was the luckiest person alive. His hut was made out of bamboo sticks and plastic tarps, with raw sewage trickling out front, but still, Manoj Singh said he was happy, very happy, in fact. Though sometimes he only had only a few bowls of rice to feed his family, he said "I feel that I am not poor, but I am the richest person in the world."
How could this be? I have friends who can become unhappy by bad cell phone reception or a delayed flight.
For the past six years I have been working on a documentary film about happiness called Happy. The idea came from my friend Tom Shadyac, a filmmaker who had achieved great commercial success with hits like Bruce Almighty, Liar Liar and The Nutty Professor among others. Tom had read an article that compared countries in terms of happiness, and the gist was that while America is one of the richest countries, we are nowhere near the happiest. Tom knew quite well what it was like to have money but not be happy, as he had noticed how much happier his gardener and his housekeeper were than the millionaire movie stars and producers that he worked with every day. So Tom suggested we make a documentary exploring happiness, to discover its true causes.
I have long considered myself to be a lucky person, but spending six years focused on happiness for this film has been even more rewarding than I could have imagined. One of my most profound experiences occurred when I spoke with one of the leading researchers of happiness in the world, Ed Diener, at the University of Illinois. He told me that a person's values are among the best predictors of their happiness. People who value money, power, fame and good looks are less likely to be happy than people who value compassion, cooperation and a willingness to make the world a better place. That astounded me -- but it somehow made sense. People who express their love -- who rejoice in the health and happiness of others -- are more likely to feel loved and happy themselves.
I was well on my way to finding the keys to happiness when I got a very upsetting phone call. One of my best friends, a reporter for the New York Times, had been kidnapped in Iraq. It was around the time that beheading was becoming popular, and we didn't know if he was alive or dead.
I started to wonder about my own life and how I was spending it. Was I doing as much as I could be doing? While I was exploring existential questions about the meaning of life, sitting for months in a comfy editing suite, my friend was risking his life to tell the stories of people whose voices would otherwise not be heard. He was putting everything on the line to try to make the world a better place. Was I living my life with as much courage?
But in the course of making my happiness film, I learned something simple but completely illuminating. Research showed that just about all happy people have strong relationships. They are healthier and have happier children. They are more likely to find a creative solution to a problem and to help a stranger in need. Happy people have fewer conflicts and are less likely to commit crimes, pollute the environment or go to war. In other words, just about everything I cared about, everything I wished I could change in the world, was improved with being happy. So although my job was much safer than my friend's, I realized we were working toward the same goals -- to improve the world in which we live. On one of the happiest days of my life, my friend called from Iraq to tell me what had happened: he had been kidnapped and nearly killed but he had survived.
So now my film takes on new meaning. I am striving for nothing less than to change the world with it. Thankfully, I have some help -- a lot of it. With happiness being good for everyone, it's no surprise why a happiness movement has begun. A field of science called "positive psychology" has sprung up. Countless books and magazine articles are now being written about happiness, and every day it seems there is another website or blog dedicated to exploring or promoting happiness.
I asked Ed Diener if there is a single key to happiness, a secret happy ingredient that every happy person in the world possesses. He said that the formula is different for everyone, but the one constant is good relationships. He said every happy person he's studied in over three decades of research had someone to love and someone to be loved by.
When I asked Manoj Singh, the rickshaw puller, what enabled him to be so happy, despite the grinding poverty that surrounds him he pointed straight to his family. "When I return home and see my son waiting for me, and when he calls out to me 'Baba!' I am full of joy."
The greatest lesson I learned while making this film is that my pursuit of happiness is not about me. It's about our relationships and how we help each other. It's about us.
Roko Belic is a Creative Activist Member at Creative Visions Foundation (www.creativevisions.org). Please visit www.TheHappyMovie.com for more information on the film and the global screening event World Happy Day, on Feb. 11, 2012.