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INTERVIEW: ‘The Happiness Revolution’ - Academy Award nominee Roko Belic, talks to Run Riot about his latest film ‘Happy’

Award winning film director Roko Belic talks to Run Riot about the growing global happiness movement; his secret to making powerful movies; why unhappy people are less creative; and how the making of HAPPY, has changed his life…

Roko Belic’s directorial debut (Genghis Blues) won the Sundance Audience Award and was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary.

Roko recently teamed up with renowned Hollywood filmmaker Tom Shadyac to direct his latest work HAPPY - a feature-length documentary exploring the origins of human happiness around the globe.

HAPPY takes us on a cinematic journey that travels from the swamps of Louisiana to the deserts of Namibia; from the beaches of Brazil to the mountains of Bhutan and beyond - all in search of what makes us really happy. Combining powerful human stories with cutting edge science, HAPPY reveals the truths and secrets behind our most valued of emotions.

RR: So what inspired you to make this film?
I got a call from my good friend (and film producer) Tom Shadyac. He had just read an article about happiness - it explained that although America is a rich country, it’s not a very happy one.  

Tom, who had made millions of dollars directing Hollywood blockbuster comedies like Liar Liar, Bruce Almighty, and the Nutty Professor, said that the people who cleaned his house, and tended his garden, were actually happier than many of the millionaire movie stars and producers he worked with every day. So he suggested we explore the true causes of happiness in a documentary film. He proposed that if I directed - he would pay. It sounded like an amazing project, and I immediately said YES.

It was a decision that changed my life.

RR: So did you discover the secret to happiness whilst making this film?
The kind of happiness I set out to explore in HAPPY the movie - is that deep sense of joy or contentment that is almost always there, even through the ups and downs of life.

I was excited to discover, that a field of science had recently grown around the study of happiness. So I dug in… set out to experience the research for myself. I learnt that happiness not only makes life more enjoyable, but it makes us better people – better students, workers, husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, children, and friends. Happy people are more likely to help a stranger in need, and are less likely to commit a crime or pollute the environment. Happy people are more creative, have better relationships, and do a better job.

Then I started to notice some simple truths: happiness comes from relationships, values, and play. Good strong relationships help create happy lives; spending time with the people you love, has a hugely positive impact on your happiness. People who do physical aerobic exercise, tend to be happier than people who don’t. Scientists believe that this is partly due to the impact exercise has on our brain’s dopamine levels (pleasure hormone). People who get into 'flow,' who lose themselves in a hobby, task, or game, also tend to be happier. Whether it's surfing, sewing, cooking, or even being at work - concentrated focus on an activity we’re good at, can induce a state of flow. And being in a state of flow makes us happier.

If you value and prioritise money, power, fame, and good looks - you are likely to be less happy than if you value compassion, co-operation, and wanting to make the world a better place. So although we can't all choose to be millionaires, or look like beautiful movie stars - we can choose what to care about. And that’s exciting, because to a large extent - happiness is within our control.

RR: Here in the UK though, we’re famously miserable! We hate being told to cheer
up. Is there any hope for us?!
When I set out to make HAPPY I wasn’t interested in people's opinions about happiness (those have been heard for thousands of years). I actually wanted to know what the hard science was telling us. And I discovered, that there is hope for just about all of us to become happier - whether we believe it or not!

We’ve all experienced that small boost of happiness that comes from hearing a great joke or tasting a delicious dessert. So it’s no stretch to believe what science is telling us – that there are longer-lasting happiness boosters out there too. We just have to be willing to try or experience them.

RR: So what can we all do right now to feel happier?
Express your gratitude: Write a letter, an email, or tell someone in person, what you appreciate about them, or what they've done for you.

Appreciate what’s going well in your life: Start with the basics - like you have access to clean drinking water and food (millions of people don't); you have access to technology like mobile phones and the internet; you get to experience amazing music and art that you didn't have to create yourself; someone else built roads for you to drive on; you (probably) have heat and electricity in your home...

Try something new: Take a new route to work; eat a different kind of food for lunch; read a book you'd never normally choose. All these things can boost our happiness.

RR: So what makes you come alive?
Just about everything (even though making movies can be super tedious!)

RR: What was your most poignant moment during the making of this film?
I had a number of moving experiences whilst making HAPPY, but one experience that stands out for me, happened in Okinawa, Japan.

There’s a village in Okinawa nicknamed the, 'Longevity Village', because of the high number of inhabitants over the age of 100. While we were there, we went to the local pre-school to see what the villagers are like at 3 or 4 years old – in the hope that we might glean some insight into the beginnings of a long and happy life…

The day we turned up, the school was having a foot race. So we followed about 50 children as they ran to the end of the block, across the finish line, and into the arms of a group of watching grandmothers, who all began to clap and sing with the kids.

When I started to ask the grandmothers (all in their eighties and nineties) who their grandchildren were, one of them replied: "None of us are related to any of the children."

"Then what are you all doing here?" I asked.
 She looked at me like it was a truly silly question with an obvious answer, and said: "We're here because the kids are here."

In Okinawa people are just there for each other. They love and support each - simply because they are there.

RR: Do you think it is harder for western consumerist cultures (e.g. UK and US)
to embrace true happiness?
It's not harder for people in consumerist cultures to embrace happiness. Because happiness is not about economic systems or political ideologies - happiness is about personal experience. And we are all capable of being happy.

RR: An historic event took place this Easter - the first ever UN conference on Happiness. Are we now in the midst of a Happiness Revolution?
We are in the midst of a happiness revolution.

More and more, as the standard of living around the world rises - people are noticing that external advancements do not necessarily bring deeper contentment. So we are seeking other paths to true happiness, and those paths are being revealed as the science progresses.

Even governments are taking note. In the UK, Australia, Denmark, Germany and the USA - local and federal governments are now looking to Happiness research (and to Bhutan - the first country to prioritise Gross National Happiness over Gross National Product) – they’re searching for ways to improve the wellbeing of their citizens.

RR: Many creative types draw on their pained darkness for inspiration. Do you think some artists need to stay miserable to produce great art?
Struggle, and a certain amount of pain and suffering are not only un-avoidable, but they can help us calibrate emotionally.

We've all heard the saying: "You have to taste bitterness to know what sweetness is." And we know that lots of great art has been inspired by pain and darkness.

But…remaining in a funk doesn't necessarily add to our creative genius. In fact, unhappy people are less creative than happy people.

That doesn't mean that great art can't come from pain - sometimes it does. But to really get the creative juices flowing, and to be able to produce creatively over a prolonged period of time - happiness helps.

Since making my first film (Genghis Blues) - I've felt that staying sensitive is the key to making a powerful movie.

Being sensitive to the joys and sorrows of the characters in my films while shooting and editing (even to the point of tears) is critical - because it enables me to tell their story well. By staying sensitive, I can make movies that people can connect with. And it’s that ‘connection’ that brings me great satisfaction.  

So we shouldn't try to avoid all pain and suffering, nor should we avoid the joys that follow.

RR: Has making HAPPY changed you as a person?
Yes, making HAPPY has changed my life for the better: I play more (usually in the form of surfing). I recognise what I have to be grateful for even more (my health, eye-sight, friends, creative lifestyle, being by the beach, food, new experiences, music, electricity - the list is endless).

I am more easily satisfied by subtle experiences. And I now know that my happiness improves all that I value: my relationships, my work, and my service to others.

RR: You’ve made the film. You’re spreading the word. What’s next?
My goal is to share this film and the ideas in it with as many people as possible around the world.

Happy people have better relationships; happy people find more creative solutions, and are more likely to help a stranger in need. Happy people are healthier, and they even live longer.

Happy people are also less likely to commit a crime or pollute the environment, and are more likely to advocate for equality and human rights.

Happiness is good for us and for the world. If I can help spread it - I'll be an even happier man.


followed by Q&A with the Director
18.30–20.30, Tuesday, 15th May
The Prince Charles Cinema
7 Leicester Place,
London WC2H 7BY

Official site: TheHappyMovie.com
You might also like UK based organisation Action For Happieness: actionforhappiness.org


[While we're on the subject of 'Happy' and Wellbeing, you may also be interested in this lecture, above]
LSE LECTURE: Mental Health: The New Frontier for the Welfare State
Speaker(s): Professor Lord Layard
Recorded on 6 March 2012 in Sheikh Zayed Theatre, New Academic Building.

CEP founder Richard Layard will close this series of lectures with a discussion on the economic and social costs of mental illness. Richard Layard is Emeritus Professor of Economics at LSE. He is the head of the Centre for Economic Performance's Programme on Well-Being.

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