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.
And the response is the compelling, joyous, and provocative documentary “Pursuing Happiness.” Made over the course of two years – with crowdfunding and social media as the source for both the production budget and the film’s content – the film follows Shell and producer Nicholas Kraft across the country where they talk to remarkable people who radiate genuine happiness. Every story shows a different struggle and a different triumph as artists, public servants, parents, and dreamers show the world what makes them happy – and how that happiness has a remarkable impact on the people and communities that surround them.
With testimony from experts in the field of mindfulness, psychology, art, sociology, religion, and cultural studies, “Pursuing Happiness” is a crash course in what makes us our best, and the film has brought Shell into contact with the growing worldwide “happiness movement.” With successful screenings at several film festivals (which lead to an appearance for Shell at the United Nations and on “The Today Show”), the film will be released in select theatres this spring and on demand and streaming services throughout 2016.
ADAM SHELL AND “PURSUING HAPPINESS”
They say that cleanliness is next to godliness – but in the United States anyway, perhaps our most divine and inspiring pursuit is that of happiness. It’s written into our Declaration of Independence, and we hear about the value of happiness from all quarters, from Judy Garland (“Come on, Get Happy!”) to Charlie Brown (“Happiness is a Warm Puppy”) to Pharrell Williams. But while we hold happiness as a golden ideal, so many of the stories we tell are about people who are never happy: politicians on the news, populations in rebellion, parents afraid of the world their children are growing up in.
Filmmaker Adam Shell, who made the acclaimed show biz documentary biographies “Put the Camera on Me” (2003) and “Finding Kraftland” (2007), 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.”
And respond they did. The response on Kickstarter was not only a matter of finding money to pay for the production, but it allowed Shell and Kraft to get answers to the question “who is the happiest person that you know?” The leads pointed them all over the country. “It’s nice to do something positive, and that’s what drew people to it, what became infectious about it,” the director explains. “This isn’t a documentary about a competition or about who is screwing things up – those kinds of stories are necessary and some good can come of that, of course. But sometimes it’s nice not to dwell on the negative – people knew from the beginning that they were supporting and were going to watch something fun and positive and enjoyable.”
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.
But each of the figures in “Pursuing Happiness” emerges as far more than examples of how to have a good attitude, and ultimately Shell found himself telling a slightly different story than the one he intended. “From the beginning, my mindset was that this was only going to be about happy people – all sugar and candy, everyone out there who is just really, really happy. Some people said, ‘don’t you want to find people who have struggled to find happiness?’ – and I was against that because I had this different vision.”
As he started putting footage together, however – 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.”
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!”