She was a happy robot. A happiness Barbie. An automaton of optimism, a sappiness specialist. Blade Runner is what came to mind but rather than Pris, your basic pleasure model, we had Bliss, your basic optimism model. She had questions for us and rattled facts at us with a rat-a-tat that was nearly impossible to follow and harder yet to argue with. For if you raised an issue she didn’t cotton to, she glossed over it with a few more factoids and said brightly, “Next?”
We’d come to see a movie called, appropriately, “Happy.” (http://www.thehappymovie.com/) Director, Roko Belic’s wonderful first film, “Genghis Blues” won the Sundance Audience award and was nominated for an Oscar in 1999. My wife and I were big fans of that film and were optimistic about this new one. Turns out, it was excellent, an informative trip down the garden path of current happiness research. It was also a travelogue of happy people in the most unlikely of situations. Example: a woman who had been a teen beauty queen and rich and successful wife and mother, who was run over by her sister in a truck while they quarreled on the dirt roads of her ranch. She suffered sixty facial surgeries and emerged nearly whole, her husband left her, her life ruined, plagued by emergent memories of girlhood stolen by alcoholic incestuous father. Like a phoenix, she rose up to meet her inner self, to find contentment in contemplative authenticity. Example: a rickshaw driver in Calcutta, the poorest of the poor with no more than a roof over his head for his family and rice for food. Rich with love, with dear, loving friends in his squalid ghetto of a back street — happy. Example: an inspirational lecturer doing a program at Benicia (CA) Middle School. This big-hearted John Goodman-esque fellow passes the mic to kids daring enough to speak up about being bullied, then gets the school to cheer for these kids’ courage and heart. Check him out at http://www.michaelpritchard.com/
We had assembled to see this movie, projected in video at the Ted Adcock Senior Center in Half Moon Bay. The usual assortment of culture vultures in town, the people you only see at the Coastside Orchestra concerts and these films presented by The Visionary Edge. After the film, which was deeply touching, the presenter introduced a Sustainable Happiness expert and the stage was taken by a statuesque, raven-haired, milky skinned model. She wore a long white raincoat out of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and an attractive sky blue scarf to add patriotic flare to her outstanding feature: a great joker’s grin outlined in brilliant firecracker red.
The woman who spoke is indeed a happiness expert. (She shall remain unnamed here to avoid ruffling any happy feathers.) She’s studied with the best of the field and made it her life’s work to “happify” (my word, not her’s) the known world, especially in the West, and particularly it seems, for those who can pay her well. (Her fees for a “happiness makeover” range in the $3000 area for a personal consultation.)
She began the discussion by asking a startling question for such a random and public forum: “How many of you have suffered with depression or been medicated for a depression condition?” I quickly looked around to see that of the hundred or so people gathered, only two or three hands went up. (I admit that I was slow to raise my own, but did raise it high, as I am currently on a mild anti-depressant after the death of my brother last year.) I immediately wondered, if one in ten Americans are currently taking anti-depressants (according to USA Today in Oct. 2011), why were more hands not raised?
Our happy hostess went on to lecture and take questions on her research and especially on her programs, which she present to corporations like Proctor & Gamble and Hilton Rewards, a system of exercises to retrain us to be happy. Hilton Rewards asked to use her research in order to encourage their clients to do more travel. Her idea is that none of us were taught to be happy as children and we can teach ourselves to do so now. A bold premise which I certainly choose to believe and would love to see happen. After many more questions, some of them skeptical, some exposing real stories of audience member’s who had friends and family who’d struggled with these issues, she got to the exercises we all desperately were ready to try.
Turns out they are quite simple and quite affective, carry them out first thing in the morning and see what you think.
- Smile, actually force your face into a smile. The research shows that the brain does not know the difference between a forced smile and a real one. The physical smile releases dopamine just like the real one (or jogging for that matter).
- Say out loud: Today is the Happiest Day of My Life. If we program ourselves this way, it will happen, we will have a happier day and great things will come to us.
- Do some “Laughter Yoga”, start saying Hee Hee Hee, Ho Ho Ho, Ha Ha Ha, until you break out in real laughter. This was good fun last night as the room rapidly exploded into great peals of nearly authentic sounding laughter. The good doctor herself seemed to really enjoy it, like Angelina Jolie (whom she resembles) receiving an Oscar!
- Jump up and down five times and say I’m Happy each time. This one is really fun. Try it now.
When her portion of the program was over, the audience quickly left the Adcock Center, probably exhausted from the strain of a new emotion. But I was feeling fine and not particularly judgemental of her work, glad to have attended the evening’s activities. And I had a question. I approached her gently as she stood tall and available at the corner of the room, no one else lined up with me.
I introduced myself and mentioned that I thought the question regarding depression had a curious response this evening. If one in ten people were taking anti-depressants, then why didn’t more people raise their hands? I asked her if this was a common response when she addressed groups, corporate groups for instance. Perhaps there was something about the way she phrased the question, I suggested. Or maybe it was because it was the very first question she asked, rather a difficult opener I admitted. Was it because depression was too stigmatized? I wondered. Because we were in a small town?
She smiled. A lot. Broadly, earnestly, unapproachably. I wondered if she was actually hearing what I was saying, if she were present at all. A thick veneer was presenting itself as I attempted to probe the issue further.
“Its because you were never taught to be happy as a child.” She said.
“But I know how to be happy,” I said. “I’m a musician; I work with children in music. I do understand what it feels like to be happy. I am on a temporary course of anti-depressants after my brother’s death last year,” I told her.
“I’m sorry,” she said automatically. I asked her further about the depression question. Did she have this inauthentic response at corporations? “I don’t always ask that question.” She said and grinned so broadly that I was frightened and put off, which I wondered whether was her intention.
She had offered a $1000 discount on her services to anyone who signed up that night. I guess she realized I wasn’t planning on signing up, I already knew happiness, I was just suffering a temporary setback due to circumstances beyond my control. But she offered me something free at that moment — a hug.
It’s hard for me to refuse a hug, from anyone. I rose up and received an embrace She reached out and gave me a hug that contained no actual human warmth in it that I could discern. It was a goodbye hug, no better yet, a get-lost hug, a don’t call me, I’ll add you to my email list hug.