Adam Shell and Nicholas Kraft are traveling the country to find our nation’s happiest people, all while filming the experience to share with audiences in Pursuing Happiness, a feature-length documentary.
One of my favorite stories to tell about the 'Pursuing Happiness methodology' is how a delicious cookie in Eugene, Oregon led us to Silverhill, Alabama, population 700, where we met two extremely inspiring folks.
From bakery to backwoods
Our last filming trip was all plotted out: 20 days on the road, from Oklahoma City to Miami, with interviews and accommodations lined up. Everything was set for a fantastic and productive trip, save for the two days we planned to spend in Mobile, Alabama. For weeks I had been contacting local businesses, religious groups, nonprofits and even a local gospel radio station, all in the hopes of finding a lead about happy people to interview in the area—but I kept coming up short.
In the middle of our frantic outreach efforts, Adam and I took a minute to reflect on the fact that one year earlier, we had begun our Pursuing Happiness journey. We reminisced about the first trip—the wonderful people, the excitement of the unknown and those awesome cookies from The Sweet Life Bakery in Eugene. Then it hit me! I rushed to our files, pulled up the footage from the bakery and scrubbed through until I found Leda, one of the bakers.
After confirming that she was indeed wearing a BAMA hat, I wrote her an email to inquire if she was from the area, or had simply attended school there. It turned out that she was from a small town called Silverhill, in the Mobile area! According to her email, we would be fools to pass up the opportunity to spend some time there with two of the happiest people on the planet: her parents, Denis and Patty Hermecz.
Leda described them as a “daily inspiration” and “the two most creative people I’ve ever met.” What really caught my attention, though, was her acknowledgment that it was only in her adult years that she realized how unusual their lifestyle was: self-employed artists, raising a family and living off the land. I was intrigued. Mobile was out, Silverhill was in!
The sun had set as we cruised through winding country roads on our way to Denis and Patty’s home, the kind of place where the nearest neighbors are a mile down the road, and a trip to the grocery store takes 15-minutes. We traveled deeper into the woods until we reached a small, very colorful wooden home, nestled in the trees, and surrounded by potted plants and handmade artwork.
“You’re just in time for dinner,” Denis exclaimed, greeting us at the end of the driveway. “We’re makin’ pizzas!”
Within minutes of meeting, we were all seated around the dining table, enjoying pizza with every ingredient, from the dough to the toppings, made from scratch—most of it grown right there on their property.
The home, which was also made from scratch by Denis and Patty, was the focal point of our visit. The couple had moved in close to forty years ago, before the home was even finished. “There were no doors or windows, really,” they laughed.
The home beautifully represents who they are: funky, comfortable and slightly askew. The floor is made from a reclaimed roller skating rink, the foundation was salvaged telephone poles and a great deal of the wood had been collected after various hurricanes ripped through Mobile. Denis and Patty have a special ability to take whatever comes their way and turn it into something beautiful.
The next morning we woke up to find that Denis had whipped up a batch of biscuits as big as our heads. To these he added fresh-squeezed orange juice, bacon from a pig they had probably known by name, and eggs from their chickens. Afterward we toured the property and saw the wood shop that Denis had built for his carpentry business.
The shop was filled with incredible pieces of furniture that he had built or was in the process of building. It was truly amazing to see how an artist’s eye could turn a fallen tree into such beautiful works of functional art.
Afterward we walked along the stream that meanders behind their home and simply enjoyed the fresh air and country sounds: birds, the rippling of the stream, and the wind flowing through the trees overhead. It was their own paradise: privacy, a personal swimming hole and enough space to let the dogs run free.
Living with purpose, not expectations
Before leaving, we sat outside with Denis and Patty, soaking up the sun and enjoying the smells of lunch roasting on the barbecue. We pulled out our cameras for a more formal sit-down interview. As we listened to their stories, there was something familiar about that scene, though I couldn’t place it at the moment. Only upon returning to Los Angeles and watching the footage did it hit me: This was our When Harry Met Sally interview! An older married couple sitting next to one another, lovingly recounting their life together with the natural humor that comes from years of being with someone.
These two were clearly not concerned with being happy—for them it was a natural byproduct of living off the land, creating art, caring for animals and raising a family. An appreciated byproduct, I’m sure, but not the goal.
Denis and Patty beautifully exemplified what we had learned during our very first interview with professor Iris Mauss at UC Berkeley, who had written a paper about how the pursuit of happiness can make people unhappy. “People set their expectations too high” and then are disappointed, she told us. “Having low expectations leads to happiness.”
At first, this was a rather grim thought. Who would ever want to have low expectations in life? But spending time with people like Denis and Patty – people who are motivated to live peaceful lives, create art and foster lasting relationships simply out of the joy of the experience—has shown me that it’s not about having low expectations so much as it is about operating from a place of good intention and reasonable expectations.