real life

The Netflix documentary that taught me a life lesson about happiness.

Ask someone the question, ‘what do you want out of life?’, and most will answer ‘to be happy’.

So, what would it take to make you happy? More money, or a better job? Finding your soulmate and falling in love? A slimmer figure, or a holiday somewhere exotic? Less work, more work, no work? A never ending wheel of cheese?

Happiness is an elusive state of being, a magical formula. It always seems to be just out of reach, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. For many of us, happiness comes down to big, fat, pie-in-the-sky dreams. Ones that exist not in the today, not in the tomorrow, but somewhere in the future where you will finally nail being ‘happy’.

Maybe not.

On Monday, I threw myself wholeheartedly into a night of red wine and Netflix. Having exhausted just about every trashy series available, I scrolled the documentaries tab instead. Murderers… wildlife docos… witches… happiness? Among the dark web of Netflix documentaries, one simply titled ‘Happy’ was the one that caught my eye.

I’m on a bit of mission at present, you see. After a rocky start to the year, and a slight freak-out-birthday looming large (almost 30, send help) I’ve been really tuning into how happy I am. Healthy? Yep. Successful? Sure, at everything except food shopping and driving a car. But happy? Well, jury’s out on that one.

What my journey to happiness has taught me thus far is that ‘happiness’ has become a saleable commodity. It might still be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but did you know that rainbow costs you money? It comes in the form of yoga classes, meditation classes, a new dress, a new figure, a new haircut. That rainbow can be a self-help book, a diet plan, a set of organic cotton sheets, or an account with which I’ll definitely pass on, thanks.

netflix documentaries
"What my journey to happiness has taught me thus far is that ‘happiness’ has become a saleable commodity." (Image: iStock)

So, you can imagine how, er, happy I was to spot a documentary, free of charge, that offered a little insight into my endless pursuit of happiness.

Made in 2011 by director Roko Belic, Happy takes us around the world to a dozen different countries, in the hope of answering the question: what makes humans happy? From the slums of Kolkata, India to the swamps of Lousiana; Happy does a bang up job of reminding you that happiness has nothing to do with money, or attractiveness, or endless wheels of cheese - it comes down to how you live your life.


As I went to sleep last night feeling humbled by the film, one sparkly little fact bounced around my mind. In the movie, Belic references psychology professor, Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of  “The How of Happiness.” According to Lyubomirsky, happiness doesn’t come down to magical wishes or silver spoons - it comes down to you.

40 per cent of your happiness comes down to you, actually.

“The answer lies in the pie chart theory of happiness,” explains Lyubomirsky.

“Recall that 50 per cent of individual differences in happiness are governed by genes, 10 per cent by life circumstances, and the remaining 40 per cent by what we do and how we think - that is, our intentional activities and strategies.”

The 50 per cent figure references the ‘genetic set point’ of happiness. This is a predisposed ability to feel happiness. Like some people are genetically predisposed to being skinny, or tall, or athletic; some people are genetically predisposed to being happy.

The life circumstances - a slim 10 per cent - are the things we think make us happy. Good jobs, lots of money, loving partners.

But the rest? That’s in your hands.

40 per cent of happiness can be traced to ‘Intentional activities’ - that is, the things you do that make you happy. (And no, that doesn’t mean spending an entire weekend in front of Gilmore Girls with a tub of ice-cream…)


These happiness-creating activities could be exercise, spirituality rituals, regular social engagement, charity work, writing down goals or dreams, living in the present, or self-care rituals (ok fine, that could include Gilmore Girls and ice-cream).

The takeaway nugget of advice was pretty simple: if you want to be happy, you need to work at it.

Like many millennials, I am exceptionally good at identifying what makes me unhappy. Intense scroll sessions on social media, weekend binge sessions (booze, food, all of the above), and skipping yoga classes are all sure-fire ways to send me spiralling into a sad hole. But I can now understand that I need to shift my focus big time, to understand what makes me happy.

And when I started to write that list, I was pretty surprised.

This friends, is happiness. (Image: Netflix)

Bringing a healthy lunch to work. A bubble bath. Hiking on a Saturday morning. Singing Ed Sheeran with my girlfriends in the car. Going to bed early. Finding time to write, not for work, but for myself. Fresh sheets. Crappy movies from the late 90s. Calling my Dad. Having my Dad call me. Booking a trip away, and looking forward to it for months. Fairy lights in my bedroom. Fresh flowers on a Sunday. Nailing a new record running. CHEESE.

None of these things are expensive, and none of these things are impossible. When I scrapped my standard list of happiness - a size six figure, and a six-figure bank balance - I found that peaceful and cheerful living comes down to the little things.

So, I dare you. Figure out what your 40 per cent of happiness comes down to, and write the list. Rip it out of your notebook, and stick it to your fridge. That’s your mantra for the next little while.

And the rest? Well you can blame your parents and their 50 per cent of moody genetics for that one.

What does happiness mean to you? Do you feel like it's attainable?