"Pursuing Happiness" Makes Its Debut

Adam Shell, Nick Kraft and friends on the road in America

Nearly three and a half years ago, documentary filmmaker Adam Shell sent a mass email to the 500 or so people in his address book with the subject line “Pursuing Happiness.”

“How have we lost our happy?” Adam asked. The United States, he noted, consistently ranks in the double digits in terms of the happiest nations in the world. Determined to uncover a less grumpy side of the country, Adam was embarking upon a journey “to document as much happiness as I can find in America. I want to experience happiness in the billions of different ways that Americans please themselves. It is my goal to document how happy our country really is and that there is more than one answer for finding happiness.”

This morning that journey landed them a spot on the Today show, where they were interviewed by Maria Shriver:

The happiness road trip

That journey took him and his producer, Nicholas Kraft, on a 6,000-mile road trip, from Los Angeles to New York to places like Dripping Springs, Texas; Tahlequah, Oklahoma; and Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. The pair conducted more than 300 interviews with both happiness experts and exceptionally exuberant Americans, resulting in nearly 400 hours of footage. Finally, last week, Pursuing Happiness premiered in Los Angeles to an audience of friends, family and cast members.

“When we say we didn’t have a finished film when we set the date for this screening two months ago,” Adam told the audience, “we mean we didn’t have a finished film this morning.”

An emotional night

If Nicholas and Adam were exhausted by a sleepless night spent tinkering with the film, they were also exhilarated. “This movie has brought me so much joy,” Nicholas said during the screening’s question-and-answer session. “I never thought I was going to be so emotional tonight.”

He wasn’t the only one tearing up. Nicholas and Adam’s quest to find America’s happiest people led them to Gloria Borges, a vibrant 28-year-old, newly married lawyer who, though undergoing treatment for advanced cancer, maintains a fierce commitment to happiness. “I don’t have 80 years guaranteed, and neither do you and neither does anyone,” she says in the film, “so make the most out of your life right now. Recognize what brings you joy and go get as much of it as possible.” 

And then there’s John Lawson, a onetime pianist who lost both hands when electricity surged through a pole he was using to paint a water tower. With hooks for hands, he went on to earn his scuba certification, become a pilot and raise his daughter as a single dad. “It never occurred to me not to do those things,” he said after the screening. “You don’t get over some things, but you get on.”

"Happiness is a choice"

The next day over lunch, still sleep-deprived, Adam and Nicholas say that if there’s one lesson to be gleaned from their film, it’s this: Whatever the circumstances of your life, happiness is a choice.

“At any given moment,” Adam says, “we get to decide if we’re going to look at a situation with optimism or pessimism, with anger or with patience and understanding.”

Happiness in action

Take that very morning, for example. With his wife out of town, Adam slept in and was trying to get his two very uncooperative kids, ages 3 and 5, out of bed, dressed, fed and in the car by 8:30.

“My daughter was throwing a fit because I’d taken her iPad away, while my son was pretty much ignoring me,” Adam says. “I took a deep breath and thought, ‘I can run after them and scream, which is what I was starting to do, or I can shift my behavior.’ ”

He decided to turn things into a game. “How fast can you get dressed,” he asked his kids. “Can you do it before I count to 30?” A few minutes later, Jack and Emmy were in their car seats and Adam was playing DJ.

A culmination of years of work

As Adam tells this story, his cell phone and Nick’s ping pretty much continuously. They’re receiving a steady stream of texts from friends who saw the film and say they want to share it with their mother or father, a sibling, a boss, a spouse, a friend who’s going through a tough time. That’s the kind of chain reaction the two were hoping for.

“People shared their stories and their energy with us, they fed us and they let us sleep in their homes,” Nicholas says. “We always wanted this film to be inspirational, to spark conversation and to act as a launching pad for something bigger than itself. ”

Pursuing Happiness will be premiering at the Newport Beach Film Festival later this month and will be playing at the Sacramento International Film Festival next month. For more information about the Sacramento screening as well as future screenings, visit pursuinghappiness.com.