Pursuing Happiness: A Documentary about the Happiest People You Know

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture
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Americans spend billions of dollars a year trying to get happy – but what is the secret to actually finding happiness? How do America's most positive people actually fulfill the "pursuit of happiness" that is promised to us as a right? Documentarian Adam Shell ("Put the Camera on Me" and "Finding Kraftland") wanted to find the answer – so he asked.

Pursuing Happiness - an interview with filmmaker Adam Shell

Adam says that the gap between our desire for happiness and our failure to find actual examples of happiness was the impetus for his documentary Pursuing Happiness, which has earned audience and critical acclaim at film festivals and will be released in theatres and VOD later this year. “The premise behind the project is that we were trying to do something that’s lacking in our society,” he explains, citing that Americans spend ten billion dollars a year in “happiness” based products, therapies, and services, with seemingly little to show for it. Where were the happy people, Adam wondered? How did they achieve this much desired but rarely seen trait? What were their secrets?

With friend and colleague Nicholas Kraft on board as producer, Shell knew that his project would need to take him to people and places far afield from his base in Los Angeles. Seeing how smaller independent projects were now getting funding through crowdsourcing and social media, they decided to do a simple proof-of-concept trailer that they could then use to solicit donations. “We started out with the happiest people that we knew,” Shell explains, saying that the first interviews took them to Portland (Kraft’s hometown), and allowed them to connect with colleagues and some happiness “experts” in Northern California. But the key figure was a friend of Shell’s wife Carla Christofferson – a woman named Gloria Borges, one of the central figures in Pursuing Happiness, a dynamo of energy and positivity who is battling cancer with defiance and humor. “We met so many amazing people,” Shell remembers, “and with the video we put together we knew we had something people would respond to.”

Gloria Borges, dancing with friends and hospital staff during her 45th round of chemotherapy. From the film Pursuing Happiness

Gloria Borges, dancing with friends and hospital staff during her 45th round of chemotherapy

Over the course of nearly two years, Shell and Kraft put the pieces of the film together, from interviewing over a dozen experts in the fields of psychology, spirituality, mindfulness, and the arts, to going on the road to track down America’s happiest people. After their initial shorter jaunt up the California coast to Oregon, Kraft and Shell had two more long road trips, eventually sharing over 7000 miles of road together. One trip took them from Boston to St. Louis (“a very, very curvy line,” Shell explains), the second from Oklahoma City to Miami, with stops in big cities and small towns all along the way. The people they find are as diverse and complex and as ordinary as one might imagine – street artists, public officials, parents – just regular folks who for whatever reason are a center of joy and meaning for everyone around them.

Kyle Bartell and Charles Molnar - the vigilantes behind Sit on it Detroit, enjoying their latest installation - a hybrid bench and public library. From the film Pursuing Happiness

Kyle Bartell and Charles Molnar - the vigilantes behind Sit on it Detroit, enjoying their latest installation - a hybrid bench and public library.

But each of the figures in Pursuing Happiness emerges as far more than examples of how to have a good attitude. As he started putting footage together – and trying to tell the complete story of the lives of his subjects – Shell started to see things differently. “After a very early screening for friends, someone asked me, ‘do we need to experience tragedy to experience happiness?’ I had thought that those were just emotions or moods – but I started to realize that the answer was yes. If you’re a human being and you feel, you’re going to experience both. In any tragedy, you’re halfway to happiness: if you’re not experiencing one, you’re not really experiencing the other – the two are pretty much impossible to separate.”

John Lawson. From the film Pursuing Happiness

John Lawson - one of my favorite people in the film

The end result is a documentary that is not only uplifting and affirmative as Shell intended, but also poignant and brutally honest in examining the delicate balance between profound happiness and mournful sorrow. And the message is resonating, as audiences have responded to the film with great enthusiasm and a desire to see more. “The coolest things that have happened just seemed to happen because they were right for the project,” Shell says. “From meeting so many amazing people, to appearing on ‘The Today Show,’ or appearing at the UN as part of the International Day of Happiness – it was part of another lesson I learned, to follow every lead, to just put questions out there and see what the response was.” With hundreds of interviews and footage that didn’t make the final cut of the documentary, Shell is working on developing the remaining material into a video series, and hopes that his quest of pursuing happiness will never end. “People are getting something really good out of this!”

Adam Shell, director of Pursuing Happiness, at the UN

Adam at the UN

I love this movie - the stories that are told, the people Adam talked with, the absolute joy and happiness that people have - and share in this film. I'm so impressed with Pursuing Happiness - I'm still thinking about it! - that I was lucky enough to talk with Adam - and ask him about the movie, his inspiration, joys, how a global worldview contributes to happiness, and more. Here's what he had to say...

Rita George, the assistant city clerk in Breaux Bridge, LA, introduced the teamus to the mayor, a state senator, and the happiest person she knows: her mom. From the film Pursuing Happiness

Rita George, the assistant city clerk in Breaux Bridge, LA, introduced the team to the mayor, a state senator, and the happiest person she knows: her mom. 

Please tell us about your new film, Pursuing Happiness...
Pursuing Happiness is the story of my journey travelling America looking for the happiest people in the country. By speaking with some of the leading researchers, doctors, and scientists in the fields surrounding happiness, I was able to mix scientific evidence with real life stories of inspiring people to create a film that not only has the power to educate, but provides the inspiration we all need to find true happiness. 

From the film Pursuing Happiness - Richard Sherman. The Academy Award-winning songwriter discussed the difficulties of writing "happy."

Richard Sherman. The Academy Award-winning songwriter discussed the difficulties of writing "happy."

What inspired you to create this film?
When I began this film, America ranked 23rd on the United Nation's list of happiest countries. I truly thought we were happier than that. I quickly realized that so much focus was consistently put on negative things that it was making us feel significantly unhappier than we should. I believed we needed to shift the focus and pay more attention to what we are doing right than to what we are doing wrong. So I set out to find the people who I believed had the answers I was looking for about how to live a happy life. 

You've had quite a journey with making the film - what were some of the challenges?
The biggest challenge at the beginning of the process was how was I going to find the happiest people in the country? I only know about 200 people at best, and most of them I would not consider to be among the happiest people in the country. We began by reaching out to family and friends, asking for referrals for “the happiest people they know.” This proved to be the perfect method to finding truly happy people. Using that filter, we expanded our reach through a Kickstarter campaign, which not only help to fund the film, but also provided hundreds of referrals from all over the country.  

Mario and Sandro Corsaro. Mario is a 90 year old Italian immigrant and Boston legend with a passion for finding the right pair of shoes. From the film Pursuing Happiness

Mario and Sandro Corsaro. Mario is a 90 year old Italian immigrant and Boston legend with a passion for finding the right pair of shoes.

Mario and Sandro Corsaro. Mario is a 90 year old Italian immigrant and Boston legend with a passion for finding the right pair of shoes. From the film Pursuing Happiness

And what were some of the joys?
The joys? Making this film!! One of the first interviews we did was with a guy named Edwin Ediberi, who runs a non-profit called the I Am Happy Project. Basically he walks around introducing himself to complete strangers and spreads happiness by simply starting a conversation. He is a truly happy person and it is infectious. This instantly proved to me how happiness is contagious. Just by spending even a few minutes with someone who is as happy as Edwin can really shift your entire mood. We got to do that for nearly two years with hundreds of people as happy as Edwin. It’s almost unfair when I think about it, but the good news is I think the film captures this beautifully.  

Ron and Marge Fenster. Ron is hilarious! From the film Pursuing Happiness

Ron and Marge Fenster. Ron is hilarious! 

I absolutely loved the different perspectives on happiness in the film - so many people find their way to happiness, in their own ways. But I'm sure you can see some trends - how can people utilize this film in finding their own happiness?
Yes, absolutely we saw trends. Now, keep in mind that even though there were trends, they looked pretty different from person to person. Discovering that and showing that was part of the goal of the film. At the beginning of the film, I sat with author and happiness expert Rick Foster, who asked me a very simple question: Why Happiness? Why does it exist? 
The answer to this question represents one of the biggest trends we discovered. That is community and selflessness. Happiness exists to bond us together, for when we are in groups we are far stronger than as individuals. And it is happiness that makes us want to connect and stay connected. I think the film provides not only the technical information that we learned from the scholars, doctors, and experts, but the emotional connection to those ideas show through the happiest people that we met. When a piece of technical data or information combines with an emotional experience, I like to call that an ah-ha moment. Those are the moments that provide true inspiration and understanding - and the film is chock full of them.  

Ken Brecher, anthropologist, Library Foundation of Los Angeles. From the film Pursuing Happiness

Ken Brecher, anthropologist, Library Foundation of Los Angeles

In what ways do you think a global worldview contributes to happiness?
We live in a time when everything is global. Gone are the days when things that happen in other countries don’t affect us all. In that, I think it is extrememly important to have one common global view as it pertains to happiness. There are so many issues that affect the entire planet right now, and more and more we are becoming a global society, as opposed to a continental one. If we can all understand the lessons displayed in Pursuing Happiness and work toward them on individual levels, it will have a very powerful global effect.  

Randy Gilson showing off Randyland, his incredible handmade paradise in one of Pittsburgh's poorest neighborhoods. From the film Pursuing Happiness

Randy Gilson showing off Randyland, his incredible handmade paradise in one of Pittsburgh's poorest neighborhoods.

What's up next for you?
I have several films in the coffer that I want to make, though none of them are slated as the next film just yet. Since I began this project, I always stated that I want this film to be seen by as many people as possible. That is my goal. So for the next period of time, I will be working hard ensuring that happens. I love nothing more than sharing in this experience with people and aiding in the conversation that begins after watching this film. I think it is a very important conversation that we all need to make sure is pervasive in our lives, so everything I can do to ensure that happens, I will be doing. 

Pursuing Happiness Filmmaker Adam Shell in New Orleans. The film was shot on hand-held cameras to foster a more conversational tone.

Adam in New Orleans. The film was shot on hand-held cameras to foster a more conversational tone.

 

Thank you, Adam, for enriching our lives! I LOVE this film. Highly recommended.

Adam Shell and Nicholas Kraft, who created the film Pursuing Happiness

Adam Shell and Nicholas Kraft at the Newport Film Festival

Learn more:
http://pursuinghappiness.com/
https://www.facebook.com/PursuingHappinessMovie

 

 

 

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