Pursuing Happiness


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Pursuing Happiness
"This film is as much a how-to guide as an observational work."

In 2007, director Adam Shell made a film about his friend Nicholas Kraft, trying to understand why and how he was so happy all the time. Later, he started wondering about the subject more generally - why is it that some people seem to be happy all the time whilst others are not? What's the secret, and is it a skill that can be learned? So he set out to find America's happiest people. This is the story of that quest.

Most viewers will probably have pre-existing ideas about what would make them happier. It must be easier with money, no? Well, yes, but only up to a certain point - once people feel secure about food and shelter, extra money doesn't make a lot of difference. So what about love? Well, perhaps, but it takes many forms. Friendship is a common factor here. Love of pleasing objects - from upcycled junk to, in one man's case, a collection of onion rings - also seems to have its place. Romance doesn't get much of a look in. People talk about how they got through bereavement and the ending of relationships without losing their innate love of life.

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Shell meets an expert who talks to him about different kinds of happiness, euphoria and eudaimonia, and provides a scientific perspective. This will be basic stuff to some viewers but entirely new to others - it's well explained without taking up too much of the film, and it lays the groundwork for exploring one of the key themes established by research - that giving to others is one of the best ways to feel good.

Though it might superficially seem like a lightweight, feelgood film, Pursuing Happiness has more going on under the surface. It's very alert to the fact that tragedy is a part of life and that some people face a greater burden of it than others. One of the strongest contributors, Gloria, is facing what may be a terminal disease, but she refuses to let it get her down. Her complex contribution avoids falling into the inspirational ill person trap because she's too evidently a complex human being, and not someone who experiences no negative emotions - just someone who deals with them a little differently from most people. Ultimately, that seems to be the trick, and this film is as much a how-to guide as an observational work.

A meandering journey through an intermittently bizarre and frequently beautiful landscape, Pursuing Happiness won't make you happy all the way through, but it's nevertheless a refreshing look at something once celebrated as a virtue which we now too often dismiss as a luxury we can do without.

Reviewed on: 15 Mar 2016
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A documentary quest to find out what makes Americans happy.

Director: Adam Shell

Writer: Nicholas Kraft, Adam Shell

Starring: Gloria Borges, Kenneth Brecher, Sylvie Forrest

Year: 2015

Runtime: 84 minutes

Country: US


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