Ask 50 people about the biggest thing they want to achieve in life, and the majority of them will undoubtedly say “happiness”. Everyone wants to be happy, but what will that sincerely entail? The definition of happiness is so subjective and specific to every individual, but science is revealing that there are some truths to happiness that can impact everyone who chooses to pursue it. That’s what I discovered in watching a really interesting documentary, simply called Happy.

The film starts out by debunking the general idea of what people think happiness is, which, generally speaking, is this state of continual bliss and/or contentment based on favorable circumstances, having a lot of “things” or amassing a certain level of wealth. What Happy explores is a deeper focus on things we can choose to do and be, beyond tangibles, that can bring out the purest joy from the inside of our souls and permeate every aspect of our lives including better relationships and even getting better jobs. I found it so interesting to see that this way of looking at happiness transcends circumstances, finances, possessions and even geographical locations.

Happy highlights this with a focus on an Indian rickshaw driver. He explained that he works in blistering heat, monsoons and even bitter winters. His home is an open shack with a tarp for a roof. His family oftentimes only has salted rice to eat. But, he explained, when he comes home to his son and family waiting for him, he feels like “the richest man in the world.” His neighbors are his friends, and they genuinely look out for and love each other.

The film also looks at Okinawa, Japan, the city with the most 100-year-old people per capita in the world. Interviews with the elderly explain why, in their opinion, they live so long. The overwhelming majority say it’s because they do what makes them happy: farming, talking with their grandkids, sleeping and growing vegetables to give as gifts to friends and neighbors. Such simple ideals, yet so rarely considered within the hectic pursuits the rest of the world focuses on.

I enjoyed this documentary because it focused on happiness not as something to achieve, but rather as a skill that can be cultivated and strengthened through scientifically-proven methods that are extremely feasible norms: serving others, acts of kindness and compassion, social bonding and interaction, and expressing gratitude. Meditation, another outlet used to foster and increase happiness, is shown in the film as a proven method to literally change and increase the growth structure of brain thickness in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that is more active when people are happy. In other words, both the mind and body respond positively to activities that increase happiness. Amazing.

I’ve always believed that happiness is a choice, and the documentary Happy solidified my thinking. It is a choice to embrace life challenges and unforeseen circumstances with a determination to be happy, regardless of the outcome. Looking at the things I can do to help others in their time of need and caring about causes beyond myself have helped me more clearly define what it means to not simply be happy, but to extend myself to ensure happiness for the people and communities around me. It is a living, breathing exercise in humility and self-sacrifice, and I hope more people embrace it for themselves and for others.

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