Human beings are constantly looking for happiness.
Project Happiness, a 62-minute documentary, seeks to provide some guidance.
Producer Randy Taran documents a small group of high school students from Watsonville, Calif. as they to search answer the burning question: What makes lasting happiness?
Interweaving confessional interviews and home video-esque footage of the students’ travels, the film makes for an authentic portrayal of their journey from California to India, where they gain the “ultimate understanding” of happiness from the Dalai Lama.
Although the film’s focus is centered on the American students, students from Nigeria and students from the Tibetan Children Village also participate in finding the key to happiness.
In on-camera interviews, the students explain the experiences that made them unhappy, including divorce, poverty, adoption, death and illness.
Footage is often traded for text that addresses the problems and fills the screen with warnings against the increase in depression and suicide rates among young adults.
By including statistics from Center for Disease Control, the film becomes more of a health informational video than a serious documentary.
The figures and numbers, though alarming, disconnect the viewer from the personal journey of the students.
To gain a better understanding of how happiness is achieved, the American students also meet with filmmaker George Lucas, actor Richard Gere, neuroscientist Richard Davidson and the Dalai Lama.
How Taran chose Lucas as an interviewee is unclear. One minute students are in the classroom, the next they are sitting in a room at the Skywalker Ranch spitballing on the philosophy of happiness.
The style of the documentary changes from a confessional interview to a more professional setting where students and Lucas speak in turns.
Despite the faux practicality of the meeting, the dialogue between Lucas and the students proves a redeeming moment for the film, as Lucas eloquently responds to their inquiries defining happiness as the “result of pleasure and joy.”
An eerily calm Gere, on the other hand, explains how he played religion roulette to find a “system” as part of his personal discovery of happiness. Gere has been a Buddhist for more than a decade.
Stepping back from the philosophical dialogue, students examine the scientific reasons for creating happiness in an interview with Davidson.
Davidson cites new research showing that brain cells can change in response to experiences, that contribute to the development of happiness.
Soon after, students are on a plane to India to meet the Dalai Lama, and their journey begins to resemble the plot of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat, Pray, Love.
Throughout the documentary, “helping others” is purported to be one of the keys to happiness. So when the students visit an orphanage in India, the film drives the point home.
Smiling faces and laughter become a manifestation of inner joy, despite the orphans’ poverty.
The moment is one of the most authentic in the film.
The students then speak with the Dalai Lama, in a meeting which Taran claims was possible through a simple phone call.
But this information leaves the viewer filled with consternation, as it seems nearly impossible to be true.
Nonetheless, the Dalai Lama is a captivating character, using humor and wisdom to answer one of the most profound questions facing humankind.
The students are so moved by the conversation with the Dalai Lama several start crying, a producer’s dream come true.
The film takes a turn as students come to find out the Dalai Lama doesn’t know the key to happiness, only elements of it.
All in all, the trip proves that no one truly knows how to achieve happiness.
Project Happiness is a journey applicable not only to graduating high school students, but people of all ages.
The concept, although well intentioned and eye-opening, is executed with amateur efforts and a disconnecting narrative perhaps too idealistic for the average viewer.