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For lifelong happiness, look to Okinawa
A new film finds that the songs, dances and "connectedness" of Japan's southern islands provide its natives with the happiest lives
So it’s the New Year and you’ve wished/been wished a "Happy new year!" countless times … but what makes for a really happy year, or even a happy life?
That’s a question that academy-award nominated director Roko Belic and manga biography publisher Eiji Han Shimizu have set out to answer in a feature documentary shot over four years, across 14 countries.
From the United States, Brazil, China to Namibia and via various lives such as a cajun fisherman, a traffic accident victim, yoga instructor, dying hospice patient, former drug addict and a zen meditator, the film, called "Happy," tries to determine the common factors between the world's happiest people.
Happiness in the wilderness
Belic braved challenges such as shooting in the Kalahari Desert of Namibia, where it was over 100 degrees Farenheit everyday, facing the wilderness with a crew of just two (driver and translator).
He was there to uncover the source of happiness for bushmen who had no creature comforts to speak of -- just untamed creatures.
"Happy" came about from a discussion between Belic and fellow Hollywood director Tom Shadyac, famous for comedy blockbusters such as "Ace Ventura."
Surrounded by the rich, famous and beautiful in the City of Angels, it struck both directors that Hollywood wasn’t exactly Happyville.
Indeed, the United States -- despite being the richest country in the world -- is ranked 23rd in the world happiness scale.
The secret of Okinawa
Meanwhile, Okinawa in the south of Japan is considered one of the happiest and laid-back communities on earth, finding joy in folk dance and song.
So what makes people really happy?
“Many of the findings confirmed what we had long suspected: that the selfish values we are trained to have in our luxury-hungry culture are not what will lead us to fulfilling and happy lives,” says Belic, who has changed some critical aspects of his life since embarking on the movie, which is scheduled for a spring release in the United States and later, Asia.
“I have started to surf again, a sport I love that I stopped doing because I did not understand its importance for my health and happiness. I prioritize spending time with friends, I am more aware of opportunities to help others, and now I value happiness much more than I had before,” Belic says.
Where happiness comes about
Two years into the film’s production, Shadyac moved from his 17,000 square foot mansion in Hollywood to a mobile home. He now rides his bicycle to work and is deeply engaged in his community.
After all, according to Shimizu, one of the findings from the movie is that happiness comes from a sense of “connectedness” with something bigger than oneself, such as family, community, religion, nature, ancestry or the universe in general.
“In Okinawa, where people live longer than anywhere else in the world, we were stunned to discover their cause of happiness, beyond their healthy diet and tropical weather, was due to a sense of ‘connectedness’ one feels in the community,” Shimizu says.
“Values are one of the greatest predictors of their happiness. If they prioritize money, power, social status and good looks are less likely to be happy than if they value compassion, cooperation and wanting to make the world a better place,” Belic adds.
Money-driven happiness has a limit
And the filmmakers are putting (or rather, dropping) their money where their mouth is. Shimizu quit his well-paying business development job in Tokyo four-and-a-half years ago to pursue his passion for the creative industry. Or as he puts it, he’s twice as happy now despite earning half as much.
“Now I can distinguish between the sense of pleasure and of genuine happiness,” Shimizu said, an MBA-holder.
And we aren’t just looking at a small sample of Hollywood hippies who can afford to hang loose.
Scientists that they spoke to found that once basic needs are met, there is no significant improvement in overall happiness from that point on. For the average American, that plateau kicks in after an annual income of around US$60,000.
How you can boost your happiness
“People who spend their money on novel, interesting and engaging experiences like traveling with friends are happier than people who spend their money on purchases relating to their image, such as expensive clothes, luxury cars and homes," Shimizu says.
"Also, spending money on someone else will boost your happiness more than if you spend it on yourself,” he adds.
Donating to meaningful causes such as the production of "Happy," which is a non-profit film produced through the Creative Visions Foundation, could be one such selfless gesture.
Of course, there are also ways to up your happiness quotient without spending money. According to scientists in the new field of Positive Psychology interviewed for the movie, expressing gratitude more often, exercising regularly, seeking novelty in day-to-day life, gaining equanimity in mind and volunteering to others’ lives are proven happiness enhancers.