Self-help and improvement often involves reading, but Arlo Laibowitz suggests that watching movies about happiness makes a great alternative. Here are his Top 3 happy films and documentaries.

In our pursuit of happiness, we read self-help books and studies, feel the benefits of meditation and yoga, and sustain happiness practices. Sometimes, however, it's also nice to wind down and watch an inspiring film or documentary.

With these documentaries below, you'll kill two birds with one stone, as they are on the subject of happiness, and inspire to do more research, or explore new or different ways to think about and practice happiness.


1. Happy [2011]

What's it about?

The premise of Happy is that everyone can become happier. The film shows fragments of the life of people in different places around the world, and how they are happy. A rickshaw driver in Kolkata finds happiness in how his shack home guards him against the elements and how his children greet him after a days work. An American woman was disfigured during an accident but found the strength to move on and find purpose in life as a healer.

Elsewhere, a Brazilian surfer finds happiness in his daily surf sessions on the waves, and in sharing that with his son. A Danish woman found happiness after a divorce, when she went to live in one of the country’s many living communities. 

And then there are the people in Bhutan who define their country’s well-being by their global happiness index. Or Bushmen in Namibia that still live like the first society of hunters and gatherers, finding contentment in that. And also the people of Ogimi village on Okinawa island in Japan, who find happiness in working the land, in the community, and in recurring social events.

These varied examples of individual and communal ways of living in happiness are mixed with interview fragments and archive footage of a wide cast of experts. People like Ed Diener, Daniel Gilbert, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Mihaly Csiskzentmihalyi, Matthieu Ricard, and Nic Marks, explain different topics surrounding happiness.


Topics covered include the relation between happiness and wealth, how much of our happiness levels are changeable by intentional activity, the role of happiness hormone dopamine and exercise in our happiness levels, the role of social connections and relationships, and how connecting ourselves to something greater increases our happiness.

Why watch it?

This documentary is a great ‘introduction’ to many different topics associated with happiness. As such, it could be an excellent film to watch to get an overview of how to approach your happiness practices.

The film strikes a right balance between the individual stories of the people that are portrayed and the general information discussed in the interviews. There are interesting and moving moments in the film, especially in the individuals portrayed, that make you think about topics associated with happiness that you might have taken for granted, or have not thought of before.

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The documentary is nicely paced, at moments with strong cinematography, and in a great storytelling rhythm, that doesn’t easily get boring. And, ultimately, it's uplifting, which is always great.



What else?

There's so much more. The Okinawa section of the film connects to the interesting concept of ikigai. The interview segments with Sonja Lyubomirski connect to her book The How of Happiness and its wonderful 12 happiness enhancing strategies.

And then there is research by Daniel Gilbert, like Stumbling on Happiness. Also, you might look into the beneficial effects of volunteering on your happiness level, as researched by people like Borgonovi. And, most of the interviewed experts have great TED-talks that explain [parts of] their research and thoughts on happiness.


2. The Happy Film [2016]

What's it about?

A more sceptical and cynical (but also playful) approach to happiness is found in The Happy Film. World-renowned Austrian designer Stefan Sagmeister tries to redesign his personality to become a happier and better person.

The film is divided into three parts, each of which is a one-month experiment with meditation, psychotherapy, and finally, prescription drug therapy, to try and boost his happiness. During his meditation retreat, set in beautiful Bali, Sagmeister complains about back pains and not being able to fully experience the meditation. But he does fall in love with a former student that he meets on the island, and that results in temporary happiness. But the relationship goes sour quickly, and Sagmeister becomes sad again.


During the therapy sessions, he's confronted with his inability to commit, although he is working through the recent ending of an 11-year relationship. He rekindles an old love in his hometown in Austria, but this relationship quickly ends as well.

Then, in the drugs segment, Sagmeister’s happiness levels go through the roof, as he proclaims: “I love pharma”. Although he's monitored by another therapist who warns him against making big life decisions, he falls in love again and even gets engaged with a much younger girl. She allows him to film the rise and fall of their relationship, until at the end of the film he is alone again, not happier.

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All of the parts of the film are intercut with beautifully-filmed designed bits or ‘commercials’ in Sagmeister’s signature style of creating written messages in natural environments, that highlight topics like compassionate vs passionate love, keeping a diary, being more flexible, and doing the things we set out to do. We also see the exhibit The Happy Show that Sagmeister created on the topic of happiness.


Why watch it?

The Happy Film is the most narrative of the three documents mentioned here. It's first and foremost a story of tongue-in-cheek self-discovery, that might resonate with your quest on finding and maintaining happiness practices. The designed bits create an interesting overall structure and offer moments of contemplation.



All in all, it's probably the ‘best’ documentary of the three as a filmic experience. The film is not a guide to happiness, nor promotional in the use of meditation, therapy, or drugs. But it invites us to empathise, to reflect on our own lives, and in its construction offers an interesting double layer in which the concept of happiness is explored, and ‘sold as commodity’ in the art-directed bits. It does make you question the happiness industry, and our – failed attempts in – pursuit of happiness.


What else?

The experiments with psychotherapy and prescription drugs create interesting connections with research done on their effectiveness. Especially if your pursuit of happiness comes from a clinical condition, these are interesting topics to explore. Sagmeister also gave a TED-talk about happiness.

In this talk, he introduces an interesting ‘scale of happiness’: from comfort, through contentment, joy, and delight, to bliss. And, he also talks about the difference between the visualisation of happiness, and happiness itself. All ideas that are food for thought, and worth of further exploration.


3. I Am [2010]

I Am is directed by the producer who was also responsible for Happy. Director Tom Shadyac was previously known for Hollywood films like Bruce Almighty, Ace Ventura and The Nutty Professor, but after an accident that took him to the brink of death, he re-evaluated his life and accumulated wealth. This is the starting point of his documentary.

Shadyac goes out on a quest to asks two questions: what is wrong with the world? And how can we fix it? In trying to answer these two questions, he touches on a lot of questions also asked in happiness research.

The biggest part of the film consists of interviews with thought leaders, philosophers and researchers, on what the purpose of life is and what happiness constitutes. Among the people interviewed are Noam Chomsky, Daniel Quinn, Desmond Tutu, Howard Zinn, Elisabet Sahtouris, and Coleman Barks.


“Shadyac goes out on a quest to asks two questions: what is wrong with the world? And how can we fix it?”

Topics such as Darwinism, the Western society with its disconnectedness and loneliness, the role of economy, and the question of the human tendency for war are discussed. Ultimately, the film asks how we can lead more loving, more compassionate, more fulfilling lives, in a world in which we are fundamentally all interconnected with each other and with the planet at large.


Why watch it?

The message and story of I Am are tremendously feel-good. The moments in which the film examines, backed by the scientists that are interviewed, the interconnectedness of everyone and everything is very interesting. And even a relief in a discussion that is usually put into New Age mumbo-jumbo pseudo-scientific terms, both by people that that adhere to the idea of ‘Gaia’, and people that criticise it.

Furthermore, having all these great thinkers – almost a "who’s who" of scientists involved in happiness – in one film, is very inspiring. The ultimate message of the film is of compassion, friendliness, and of love – “humans are hard-wired for cooperation and compassion” – might be cheesy, but that does not make it less true.


Also, the documentary gives you food for thought on how you can improve your surroundings, yourself and your own beliefs and your attitude towards others, to be happier. Although there are sequences in the film where the music combined with images of nature and wildlife are a little over-the-top, the film as a whole is very watchable and entertaining.


What else?

I Am is loaded with inspiring power quotes, like: “When Darwin wrote The Descent of Man, he mentioned survival of the fittest twice, and he mentioned the word love 95 times.” [Marc Ian Barasch].


“The documentary gives you food for thought on how you can improve your surroundings, yourself and your beliefs, and your attitude towards others, to be happier.”

Dacher Keltner’s presence could be an interesting starting point to examine the happiness research he and others are doing at the Greater Good Science Center, and to have a look at the excellent free edX course Science of Happiness, that he co-teaches.

Elsewhere, Elisabet Sahtouris’ research and ideas on evolutionary biology and futurism are very inspiring. And, Daniel Quinn’s fantastic book Ishmael, that examines the myths at the heart of modern civilisation, and proposes a more sustainable, healthy, and happy alternative, is more than worth exploring.


Bonus! 24 hours of Happy by Pharell Williams [2013]

What's it about?

Not an actual documentary itself, but an interesting project. This is a 24-hour video clip for the song Happy by Pharrell Williams. The videos shows a full day of people lip-synching and happily dancing in different parts of Los Angeles to this infectious song.

Each video is a careful orchestration of long-steady cam shots, with the parts of people dancing and singing interwoven with long sequences of people driving in cars, driving on motorcycles, and walking on streets. The people starring in these videos are not models or stars [although a couple of actors and celebrities do make cameos], but of all ages, ethnicities, and types.

Altogether, they create a beautiful cross-section of American society and turn this promotional stunt in a reflection on humanity and the joy of singing and dancing.


Why watch it?

Unless you have a distaste for William’s song, it's almost impossible not to get infected by the happiness displayed, and the great message of common humanity from having all these different people dancing, expressing themselves. You might even get up at a certain point, and do a little dance yourself!

What else?

And that is exactly what is worth to explore further. There is a growing body of research that emphasizes the happiness benefit of music. For those of us who, maybe like Sagmeister, get back pains from trying to meditate, dancing now and then might be effective for our happiness levels as well! 


Written by Arlo Laibowitz

arlo.jpgArlo is a filmmaker, artist, lecturer, and intermittent practitioner of metta meditation and morning yoga. When not dreaming about impossible projects and making them happen in the most impractical ways possible, he journals, listens to jazz, or cuddles with his better half.



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