Over the past six months we have been hard at work finding and documenting the happiest people in America, from all different backgrounds. Our only criteria for interviewees is that someone else told us they’re happy. Race, age, gender, socio-economic background, family history—all these things melt away when all we ask of them is to tell us why they're happy. One truth began to emerge that explained how this wide range of happy people, who seemingly shared no common trait ...
As you enter through the front door of Kraftland, a seemingly quiet single-family home in the hills of Encino, California, you are greeted by a life-sized Bob’s Big Boy statue—the kind Dr. Evil used as a cryogenic freeze chamber in the Austin Powers films. Above him, suspended from the ceiling, is the original bike from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, though it’s easy to miss this holy grail of movie memorabilia because hanging from the ceiling in the adjacent room is an 800 pound plastic elephant—more specifically, a Dumbo ride vehicle from the Disneyland attraction of the same name. Kraftland is a museum of 60s pop culture, a favorite spot of Hollywood parties, and the home in which I spent half my childhood.
Behind every great collection is a story, and Kraftland is no exception. My father started collecting movie soundtracks as a child, graduated to board games, and then around the time that I was born, learned that he could literally purchase pieces of Disneyland. To a Southern California child of the 60s, Disneyland was heaven. The obsessive nature of my dad spilled over into every aspect of life, and from a young age, the two of us bonded over insane father-son quests for excitement. One of these—a five-summer long trek around the world to ride every roller coaster—was the basis for the feature-length documentary my father made entitled Finding Kraftland.
It was through the creation of that film that I came to know Adam Shell, a family friend whom my dad hired to direct and edit our documentary. Adam was much more intrigued with the why rather than the what, spending a great deal of time asking us why we collected these things and what drove us to live a life defined by non-stop quests for excitement. The documentary went on to have a great life, playing in nearly 100 festivals across the world and becoming a centerpiece of conversation for many years to come. But something bigger grew from that film. It seemed every time we screened the film, audiences wanted to talk to us about happiness. How did my father and I lead such happy lives? What was in the water at Kraftland, they asked, that drove us to be such lust-for-life people? It seemed people were inspired by this father-son duo’s constant pursuit of joy. Adam took note and began to envision his next documentary endeavor, Pursuing Happiness.
Now, for the past six months we have been hard at work finding and documenting the happiest people in America, from all different backgrounds. Our only criteria for interviewees is that someone else told us they’re happy. Race, age, gender, socio-economic background, family history—all these things melt away when all we ask of them is to tell us why they're happy. One truth began to emerge that explained how this wide range of happy people, who seemingly shared no common trait, were all so happy: choice. Our subjects chose to be happy. Further, they made and embraced life decisions that lead them to happiness. These were people behind the wheel of their lives—they did not let external forces dictate the trajectory of their lives, even when outside forces brought great change.
Shawn Achor, the New York Times best-selling author of The Happiness Advantage, and founder of the Institute of Positive Research, has told us that only 10 percent of our happiness comes from factors which we cannot control—genetics mainly—while the remaining 90 percent are things that we choose. Dr. Joan Rosenberg, a psychologist and author of Mean Girls, Meaner Women also agrees: “People often avoid vulnerabilities, but by moving towards them - by choosing to view them as strengths - we can overcome and redefine them.”
Gloria Borges, for example, is a 30-year-old lawyer who graduated top of her class from Stanford law. She worked at her dream law firm in Los Angeles and was on the fast-track towards becoming a partner. She was a happy and successful young woman who had constantly achieved her goals. Then, at the age of twenty-eight, Gloria was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. The doctors gave her six months to a year to live and said she would never practice law nor play basketball again. By all accounts the world had dealt Gloria a losing hand, but she saw things differently and chose to make her diagnosis a blessing. “The doctors told me the cancer was aggressive, so I told them so am I."
Borges began the Wunderglo Foundation, which is set to raise a quarter-billion dollars to help find a cure for colon cancer. In addition, she runs a successful blog under the same name, documenting her treatment and recovery process. Borges’ writing has connected her with hundreds of people across the world who are in similar situations. Through her experiences and choices, Borges has helped countless people battling similar illnesses find joy, discover new treatments, and choose to not let a life-threatening illness dictate their lives. “Getting my diagnosis, I wasn’t going to let that stop me from living my life and being happy,” she told us. “And in response I think I’ve lived a fuller life than I did before. I’m taking risks, I don’t get caught up in stupid bullshit anymore, I just have a good time - that’s the way to live.”
When reflecting on the 70 plus subjects we have documented so far, we’re seeing time after time that the happiest people we meet are those who have made choices to be happy, even in the face of seemingly negative circumstances. From an outside perspective, some of these people should not be happy—they struggle to make ends meet, they’ve lost children, they have demanding jobs, they’re struggling against a life-threatening illness—yet they are genuinely happy. They’ve chosen that for themselves.
We have filmed over 100 hours with people living on the West Coast, and our next step is to travel the rest of the country. We have cut together numerous short spots introducing some of our “happy people” and their ideas about the subject. These videos are viewable on our website. We recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to help raise funds to complete the next step of this journey. Additionally our Kickstarter video requests that backers connect us with “the happiest person you know.” Happiness could be the ultimate commodity. Why then, do we not celebrate the happiest amongst us? We spend a lot of time praising the wealthiest and most famous, but why not the happiest? Aren’t they the ones we should be looking up to?
Tell us about the happiest person you know. Click DO it here to become a part of our film.
This project is part of GOOD's series Push for Good—our guide to crowdfunding creative progress.