A documentary on the Pursuit, Study, & Capturing of Happiness

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A documentary on the Pursuit, Study,

& Capturing of Happiness


Shelly May Roby

December 19, 2008

CINE 724: Film Theory I

Fall 2008

Professor Aaron Kerner

San Francisco State University

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.


A documentary on the Pursuit, Study,

& Capturing of Happiness

All my life I have searched for happiness. I have never been one to settle for something because it pays well or that it looks good. I got my dream job when I was 28, only to quit it two years later when I realized it was not making me happy. Over the course of my life I have moved anywhere and everywhere in my pursuit of happiness. From San Francisco to Chicago; L.A. to Austin, and then back again. I have always tried to listen to my gut and follow my heart. But I trip up, I fall, and lately it seems that I run circles around life frantically looking for happiness, never really finding it.
What about those individuals, like myself, who are extremely grateful for one’s life, and appreciative for all that they have and are, but still after all the self-help books they read, therapy sessions they attend, and journals they fill, their desperate quest for happiness continues? Is happiness really such a quest, or is it merely a decision one makes in each moment of one’s life?


I have a theory about happiness – I believe that happiness is not a pursuit and a mission one sets out to accomplish in life, but simply a momentary intention set for oneself. It is as simple as deciding to wear your blue shirt, rather than your yellow shirt on a random Tuesday.

If we are able to simply pull the happiness switch within us on a moment to moment basis – and not base our present and future life on our specific memories – allowing what has happened to us in the past influence our present moment and future moments – we are able to free ourselves from our individual stories which we wear proudly, and most of the time, unconsciously, throughout our life. In a nutshell, we are then able to magically create the life we have always intended for ourselves.
“Happiness depends on ourselves.”

-- Aristotle


Happiness is a documentary dedicated to the discovery, study, and pursuit of happiness. It explores present day theory on obtaining happiness, also examining the relationship between our happiness, our memories and our stories. How does our memory contribute to our present day experience? And, do the stories we tell ourselves about the person we are and the life we have lived thus far, aid us or hurt us? It is my belief that together, both memory and our individual story create our present day experience. If we choose happiness as our present day experience, focusing only on pleasant memory and pleasant story, will our life become one of happiness? In contrast, if we focus only on unpleasant memory and stories which do not serve us and ultimately layers our individual life, will our life become one of discontentment?
Happiness will examine well-known life situations from what the average, everyday individual has to experience to unimaginable life events most of us only read about in books. For example we look at the ending of a romantic relationship, and also extreme experiences, such as the Holocaust. How does one find meaning in such an experience as the Holocaust? What does one take away? Is it possible to bloom embedded within such horror? Author, scholar, and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl comments on this in his extraordinary book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”:

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way…It is this spiritual freedom – which cannot be taken away – that makes life meaningful and purposeful.2

Throughout “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Frankl speaks of this innerness within each of us, and ultimately the inner decisions we have for living our individual lives. It is my belief that this “innerness” which Frankl writes about in his book, acts as one’s powerful happiness switch, which at any given moment we each – individually – are able to check in with ourselves and make the decision to be happy or not to be happy, to act with meaning in our life, or to act without. It’s our ultimate free will. As Frankl explains in his book, this inner decision was the one thing that could not be taken away within the gates of Auschwitz, Dachau and other concentration camps – as one was stripped of their family members, robbed of their clothes -- their entire physical life disregarded and destroyed -- the inner workings of these men and women could not be touched, no matter how vulgar or inhumane the keepers were. The decision to choose one’s attitude, one’s state of happiness -- these inner workings of the human being -- are what I believe fuel the outer workings of the individual’s world, and ultimately the world as a whole. For if one could find the sacred buried beneath the rubble of horror and at the same time have the insight to access this inner place, imagine the power which must reside within each of us at any given moment in our lives.

So too, does memory play a key role in Frankl’s survival while in the concentration camp. Specifically he says, it was the memory of his wife, his beloved, which fueled him and helped him to continue day after day:
But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise…I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.”3
Within the walls of the concentration camps, the memory – the image – of Frankl’s beloved wife comforted him and brought him out, however slight, from his present day reality of being a prisoner. The memory of his wife, whether one sees it as a mask, a method of survival, or simply a memory from the past remembered today, colors Frankl’s present reality and alters it in such a way which lifts Frankl up, allowing him to stand on ground unimaginable to the everyday human being.
Elie Wiesel, the well-known writer (most famous book, Night), professor, Nobel Peace Prize Winner and Holocaust Survivor, also speaks about the power of memory. On September 11, 2001 I was working as a television producer for the Oprah Show in Chicago. Immediately following the attacks we put together our daily shows attempting to make some sense of the horror, confusion, and tragedy America was feeling at that time in history. One particular show we produced was called “What Do You Believe?” We decided to feature and interview individuals who had experienced unimaginable situations, and find out how they remained hopeful and faithful in such extreme and dire circumstances. Elie Wiesel was one of those individuals. This is what he had to say:
During the war I was so young and so old at the same time, I had no belief, I had no anchor, but after the war whenever there was a challenge, I said to myself what is the alternative, to stop believing? I believe in memory, the memory is a dimension -- without which I could not go on I think. I believe that memory must serve as a shield – because I remember there are certain things I will not tolerate. Of course I remember what people could do to other people. My faith in God has been severely tested, I never lost it, but it became wounded, and still is. God and I have problems with each other and nevertheless I remain inside faith. The opposite of love is not hatred but indifference, but then it means the opposite of beauty is not ugliness but indifference, the opposite of education is not ignorance, but indifference, the opposite of life is not death, but indifference to life and death. Hatred devours the hater as well as the hated.”4
Like Viktor Frankl, Elie Wiesel speaks of memory as a tool for his present day survival. This dimension of memory acts somewhat as a vessel where one is able to pull from and in turn, breath from; a vortex of sorts which we can step into and slip on, spinning with it and through it, as it supports us in our time of need.

Within the Happiness documentary we will sit down with Elie Wiesel and find out first hand how he is still able to remain hopeful after experiencing life within various concentration camps during World World II. At 15 years old, Wiesel was deported by the Nazi’s to Auschwitz. Before his release in 1945, his mother and younger sister had perished, along with his father, who died at Buchenwald, where Weisel was held prisoner, as well.5

It is this use of memory which Frankl and Wiesel speak of, which the documentary Happiness will explore throughout. How does the use of our good and bad memories aid or hurt our state of happiness? The film will also look at Johnny Springer, a thirty-four year old man who recently broke up with his girlfriend, Kim. Transfixed with remembering the time he and his girlfriend spent together – spinning his memories of her over and over in his head – stops him, he says, from enjoying his present moment, and ultimately, finding happiness today.
The film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) directed by Michel Landry beautifully demonstrates this idea. The film focuses on the relationship between Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet). After falling in love and then experiencing relationship problems, Clementine opts to have all her memories with Joel erased from her mind. Joel eventually learns of Clementine’s procedure and decides to erase his own memories of Clementine clean from his mind, as well. This memory procedure referred to as The Lacuna procedure, guarantees the following:

Memories are preserved through the pictures in our minds. Most of the time these memories are pleasant, but in the case of many lacuna patients, these mental pictures cause heartbreak and sorrow. The lacuna procedure guarantees the permanent erase of targeted memories…6
In one particular scene, Joel, horrified, learns Clementine has erased him from her memory and visits the Lacuna laboratories to find out what exactly Clementine did with her memories of him. He sits down with Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkenson) in his office and listens with disbelief to the doctor’s explanation:

Dr. Howard Mierzwiak:

Look, our files are confidential Mr. Barish so I can’t show you evidence. Suffice it to say, that Ms. Kruczynski was not happy and she wanted to move on and we provide that possibility.
After going home and pondering what Clementine had done with the memories of their relationship, Joel decides to have the procedure done, as well. He rushes back to Lacuna and requests the memory procedure for himself. While sitting in the waiting room, to Joel’s left, sits a woman with an armful of used dog toys and a dog bowl which reads, “Buster” – the shot suggests she is at Lacuna to rid herself of the memory of her deceased dog. To live in this present day without her dog may be just too painful for her. To Joel’s right, a man sits with a bag of old trophies, a shot possibly suggesting dreams forgotten; a life once lived, happier times.

Joel Barish:

I want it done now…
Dr. Howard Mierzwiak:

Now the first thing we need you to do Mr. Barish is to go home and collect everything you own that has some association with Clementine -- anything. We’ll use these items to create a map of Clementine in your brain, so we’ll need photos, clothings, gifts, books she may have bought you, CDs you may have bought together, journal entries, you’ll want to empty your home, you’ll want to empty your life of Clementine. And after the mapping is done the technicians will do the erasing in your home tonight. That way when you awake in the morning you’ll find yourself in your own bed as if nothing has happened -- a new life awaiting you.
In the above scene we see Joel gathering all items related to Clementine – pictures, drawings, a mug with Clementine’s picture on it, photos they had taken together, scrapbooks, journals – all memories associated with the relationship between Joel and Clementine. Joel feels, and the Lacuna procedure guarantees, that to rid himself of these memories will make him a happier person. Remembering a life that once was, and in Joel’s case, a life with Clementine in it, is too painful for him to realize in his present day. To erase Clementine completely from his memory Joel feels, would allow him to move on and finally step into today.
However, one of the most beautiful elements of this film is the closing scene after Joel and Clementine learn of the procedures which they both individually opted to have. Here, they decide together to love one another now regardless of their known relationship problems in the past. They choose to live in the moment, to love in the moment:


I’m not a concept Joel, I’m just a fucked up girl who’s looking for my own piece of mind. I’m not perfect.

I can’t see anything that I don’t like about you.

But you will. And I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me.


Okay. Okay.
It is this decision that Joel and Clementine make together which says: I want to love you now, and I do not care what has happened in the past between us or what is bound to happen in our future. It states: I am happy in this moment with you and this is all I know for sure, and that’s okay. It is this notion of being present in the moment which I believe acts as our happiness switch – our internal guidance system -- which allows us to focus on each and every moment of our life. It is only in the moment that we have the will to choose to be fully present. Checking-out into our past or checking-in to our future is also there as an option, as well, but it is our free will to decide with path we take.
Happiness will also explore those who have already lived a full life, for example a 102-year-old man, Nathan Mass from San Francisco. What can such an individual -- who has come before all of us -- teach us about living today? How does memory serve Mr. Mass and what makes him happy today?

It is an interesting time in the world to take up the study of happiness. With the United States economy at one of its all time lows since the Depression, daily layoffs (this week alone 40,000 job cuts were announced7). And just days ago, President Bush agreed to a $13.4 billion dollar federal loan to the big three automakers (GM, Ford Motor, and Chrysler). The auto industry – one of the major engines of the US economy -- has not felt this kind of pain in 26 years.8 In Tom Morris’ book, If Aristotle Ran General Motors, Morris, a well-known modern-day philosopher, writes about how he believes Aristotle would run one of the biggest auto making companies in the world. Morris says:

“When he looked around the world, Aristotle saw, as all of us do, that human beings pursue different things. Some seek wealth. Others dream of fame. Song long for love. Others lust for power. The cautious aim for security, the bold look for adventure. But Aristotle had the insight that beneath all the surface differences in what we seem to chase, everyone in this life is really after the same thing: happiness. And what Aristotle discerned, many subsequent thinkers have confirmed.”9
Yes, it takes more than happiness to run a company like General Motors -- you need intellect, effective leaders, dedicated employees, and many other pieces to create a thriving business. However, Morris points out throughout his book that with happiness as the bedrock of a company, a company is bound to not only succeed as a whole, but the individuals within the company will in effect soar, as well. Morris says there are four dimensions of the human experience:

Whether you are single or married, employed or unemployed, a doctor, lawyer, factory line supervisor, or company president, a mother or an elected official, whether you’re in sales and service or research and development, whatever your place in this world, you will not be fulfilled in whatever it is that you’re doing unless these four basic dimensions of your experience are addressed. And the people around you won’t experience a measure of fulfillment or happiness in that relationship or activity with you either unless these same dimension of their experience are being nurtured as well. The ancient philosophers wrote a lot about these dimensions, along with the foundations they provide for human fulfillment, and they were appreciated by medieval thinkers as well…They are: 1. The Intellectual Dimension, which aims at Truth, 2. The Aesthetic Dimension, which aims at Beauty, 3. The Moral Dimension, which aims at Goodness, 4. The Spiritual Dimension, which aims at Unity.10

Throughout the documentary we will explore these individual dimensions (Truth, Beauty, Goodness and Unity) and how they relate to one’s individual happiness and our collective happiness as a whole.

One of the most popular courses at Harvard University is a course on Happiness, referred to as the study of Positive Psychology. Positive psychology focuses on the science of what makes people feel good rather than on their pathologies. It is one of the most popular courses offered at Harvard, which is why 200 other campuses across the country are offering it now, too. More than 800 students enroll in Professor Tal Ben-Shahar’s Harvard class each year, with students even bringing their families to some of the lectures. He’s also the author of the ultra-popular book, Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment.

In his book, Ben Shahar offers insight and techniques on becoming and staying happy. He suggests meditation, goal setting, building relationships and various other exercises which he says may raise your level of happiness or determine why you are not at the level you wish to be. He also speaks of the notion of ‘being human’ and stresses that regardless of our individual financial situations, money plays little part in determining if we are happy or not:

Unhappiness is also common among the rich because they are under increased pressure to feel happy. I’ve encountered this phenomenon among a number of my students who come from a privileged background. “What possible right or reason,” a student would often ask, “do I have to be unhappy?” He feels guilty for being ungrateful, for not fully appreciating his lot in life. Moreover, because he cannot find a good reason for being unhappy, he blames himself for his predicament and feels inadequate…The unhappiness of the rich is no less real, no less natural, no less prevalent than the unhappiness of the poor, and it is therefore no less justified…We, regardless of our income and social status, need to give ourselves the permission to be human.11

Throughout the Happiness documentary, we will talk to Professor Ben-Shahar about happiness in the world today. If money, as Morris and Ben-Shahar state in their books, does not play into our state of happiness, why the continued focus on money and the economy in the world today? Yes, we need money for survival, definitely for our basic needs, but is it not a fallacy that if we have large amounts of money our life will magically transform itself into one of bliss and fairytales?
Like Tal Ben-Shahar, Robert Holden is also involved in the study of happiness and echoes Tal Ben-Shahar thoughts on what happiness is and how one can access it. Holden actually holds a Ph.D. in the Psychology of Happiness. He is the Director and Founder of The Happiness Project and Success Intelligence. And, he’s the author of ten best-selling books, including Happiness Now. In a radio show entitled Happiness Now!, Holden drills his happiness point home:

When I listen to people talk about what is happiness, and actually really think about what true happiness is, it is very interesting because we move from a list of must-haves, from fleeting pleasures, to full joy. And we move from more money, ideal home, nice car, more shoes, dark chocolate to people’s values, to their real life goals, to the real work of their life if you like and that is so important. One of the things I would really like you to reflect on is this idea that happiness is not a thing, it is not an it, it doesn’t exist outside of you, it actually exists within you and better than that I would say that happiness really is you. The way I like to define happiness is that happiness is you minus your neurosis. Happiness is your DNA; it’s your natural, unconditioned self. This is why happiness is so important to you because when you’re happy you are experiencing yourself, your natural, authentic self. And I’m really saying that the pursuit of happiness is in many ways one of the biggest blocks to happiness. And I think the pursuit of happiness must always fail actually because it is based on a lie and the lie is that happiness is outside of you. Until you change the belief that happiness is somewhere else, you’ll never quite make it. The source of all your fears stem from a single erroneous belief, that happiness is somewhere else. So try not to think of happiness as something external which travels to you or away from you, but actually think of happiness as a potential you carry within you, always. A potential that at any given moment you are opening to or withdrawing from. Happiness doesn’t come and go. What comes and goes is our attunement to happiness, and that’s the key.12

Like the internal referencing which Frankl speaks about on the grounds of Auschwitz, Holden also refers to as the guiding light of happiness. It is this space within each and every one of us, which I believe, contains the magic of miracles. To merely survive the horrors of Auschwitz is amazing in itself, but to survive with a sense of hope is miraculous. It is my belief that the ability to access this space is grounded in being fully present in the moment right now. At times this is a simple act, but when clouded with difficult memories of the past or fears of the future, the present moment somehow gets lost in the midst of it all. Finding, accessing, and ultimately capturing this sacred space within us, individually, will unlock the happiness one seeks, I believe. For this is a place untouched by the outside world, a place which can never be touched by even the most powerful of people; a place completely authentic, and ultra safe; a place overflowing with pure creativity and complete and perfect love.

The Happiness documentary will consist primarily of documentary shot footage of the interview subjects discussed – as well as stylized and staged sequences which will act as transitions throughout the film. These imaginative and magical transitions will work like brackets holding the film, and specifically the individual stories together. The transitions will consist of stylized staged scenes, each demonstrating the situational feeling the upcoming character describes. For example if a character describes a sinking and drowning feeling, a scene will be created which illustrates a person at the bottom of swimming pool. Each of these transitional scenes will operate as filmmaker Jessica Yu’s transitional puppets scenes do in her documentary film, Protagonist. They will be metaphorically fanciful, and resemble the look and feel of the film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Puppets from Protagonist: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind:

The pursuit, the goal, the quest, the fight, the walk, the reaching outside and inside of ourselves to locate and finally obtain what we each individually deem as our definition of pure and perfect happiness. How do we get there, and furthermore where is there, and how will we know we’ve arrived? Happiness, the documentary, will turn the notion of happiness upside down and inside out, uncovering for once and for all, what happiness is -- if it is anything at all – ultimately, capturing happiness in a cinematic net for all of us to feast upon.


ABC Elie Wiesel Interview, The Oprah Show, 2001.

Beck, Charlotte Joko. Everyday Zen. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1989.
Ben-Shahar, Ben. Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. New York: McGraw Hill, 2007.
Chopra, Deepak. The Spontaneous Fulfillment of Desire. New York: Harmony Books, 2003.
Dickler, Jessica. “Employers: No layoffs here,” CNNMoney.com, December 11, 2008.
Features, Focus. http://www.eternalsunshine.com/
Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search For Meaning. New York: Washington Square Press, 1959, 1962, 1984.
Hanh, Thich Nhat. The Miracle of Mindfulness. Boston: Beacon Press, 1975, 1976.
Holden, Robert. Happiness Now!, Hay House Radio, December 7, 2007.
Isidore, Chris. “Will the auto bailout work?” CNNMoney.com, December 19, 2008.
Lear, Jonathan. Happiness, Death, and the Remainder of Life. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000.
Morris, Tom. If Aristotle Ran General Motors. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997.
Seymour, Liz. “A Formula For Happiness.” US Airways Magazine, September 2007, 67-70.
Tolle, Eckhart. A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. New York: Penguin Group, 2005.
Wiesel, Elie. Night. New York: Bantam Books, 1960.
Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, Elie. www.eliewieselfoundation.org

1 Quoted in Tom Morris, If Aristotle Ran General Motors (New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc, 1997), 10.

2 Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (New York: Washington Square Press, 1959, 1962, 1984), 87.

3 Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (New York: Washington Square Press, 1959, 1962, 1984, 56-57).

4 ABC Interview, The Oprah Show, 2001.

5 The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, www.eliewieselfoundation.org

6 Focus Features, http://www.eternalsunshine.com/

7 Jessica Dickler, “Employers: No layoffs here,” CNNMoney.com, December 11, 2008

8 Chris Isidore, “Will the auto bailout work?” CNNMoney.com, December 19, 2008

9 Tom Morris, If Aristotle Ran General Motors, 10.

10 Tom Morris, If Aristotle Ran General Motors, 18-19.

11 Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D., Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment (New York: McGraw Hill, 2007), 90-91.


 Robert Holden, Happiness Now!, Hay House Radio, December 7, 2007.

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