If you're happy, you don't know it; Mike Leigh on the study of hedonics
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 11 November 2008)

The happiest people in the world, according to one theory, barely know they're happy. They're too busy. Their commitment to satisfying love and fulfilling work leaves no time for self-pity, regret, fears of the future or any other source of unhappiness.

That's fine in theory but few of us can make it work consistently and many can't manage it at all. What kind of human being achieves happiness, and why? These questions have lately been judged worthy of earnest debate in the therapy world and this season Mike Leigh, the British director of Secrets & Lies among other excellent films, takes up the subject in Happy-Go-Lucky. His main character, a schoolteacher named Poppy (Sally Hawkins), may be the happiest woman ever seen on film.

It's been a decade or so since therapists began to seriously turn their minds in this direction. In 1998, Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, in his presidential address to the American Psychological Association, urged his colleagues to study why and how happiness exists. He argued that psychologists, having dealt for generations with damaged psyches, should look into the creation of the human strengths that help us offset misery.

Since then, therapists have been engaged in the psychological equivalent of reverse engineering, taking happiness apart to see what makes it run. George Vaillant, a Harvard psychiatry professor and a psychoanalyst, has said his training encouraged him to focus on painful emotions: "As a psychoanalyst, I'm paid to help you focus on your resentments and help you to find fault with your parents. And secondly, to get you to focus on your 'poor-mes' and to use up Kleenex as fast as possible." His studies taught him that positive thinking was simply a denial of dreadful reality. Nowadays, he tries to find out what works instead of what doesn't. For instance, "Psychoanalysis doesn't get anybody sober. Alcoholics Anonymous gets people sober."

Every autumn several hundred professionals from around the world gather in Washington, D. C., at the Positive Psychology Summit and spend three days exchanging now-popular jargon about resilience, courage, forgiveness, generosity, etc.

"Hedonics," the science of happiness, is now studied in detail at the Massachusetts General Hospital.

Mike Leigh's Poppy looks like an A+ student from a hedonics seminar. And no wonder. She lives in a London where the sun always shines and she works in a public school so well staffed that when she spots bullying among her students, she calls in a social worker who appears almost instantly. He not only solves the problem (apparently in an hour or two) but also falls for Poppy.

London as designed by Leigh's cinematographer suggests that Poppy sees her environment in the day-glo colours of the 1960s. Three generations ago, Poppy would have been called a kook and two generations ago her joyfully thrown-together clothes would have classified her as a hippie. Today, robbed of those ancient categories, she has to be considered for herself, a woman of 30 who has magically learned how to value the pleasures she finds in her life.

Browsing through a bookstore, she tries out her line of giddy chatter on a sour-faced clerk but fails to raise his spirits. Undaunted, she picks up, and with a laugh puts down, a copy of Roger Penrose's thick treatise, The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe. Reality isn't exactly in Poppy's line. Leigh seems to be saying that too much of it will crush her spirit and she prefers to ignore what she can't change.

Happy-Go-Lucky (unlike Secrets & Lies, for instance) unfolds not as a plotted drama, but a series of incidents, linked only by Poppy's presence and her sunny disposition. In a trampoline class, she strains her back, gets relief from a charming masseur and moves on to a flamenco class taught by a tyrannical teacher from Seville. Poppy can't get the poses right, has trouble with the foot-stamping and sees mainly the comedy inherent in a teacher trying to persuade inhibited Londoners to embrace the passion of Spain.

On the way home from work one night, Poppy walks under a bridge and encounters a homeless man who seems to have wandered in from a Samuel Beckett production. He's voluble but incomprehensible. Trying to explain himself, he keeps pausing to say, "Know what I mean?" Poppy says she does, though all she understands is that he's a troubled soul in need of sympathy, which she's glad to give.

At times the world frustrates Poppy's intentions. When she signs up for weekly driving instruction, the Axle School of Motoring sends her Scott, an angry, bigoted teacher who wants someone he can blame for his wretched life. We can guess that most of his acquaintances dislike him and we know why. He spits imperious, dogmatic orders through a mouthful of bad teeth. When he's not obeyed, he's enraged, his demeanour suggesting a permanent hangover. His battle with Poppy, staged in the confines of a small car's front seat, develops into the film's most memorable and painful chapter.

In this situation, Ms. Sunshine turns out to be as inadequate as Mr. Misery. She's the driving student from hell, unable to sympathize with the instructor's program or put aside her giggling insouciance for the sake of learning something. Anyone as happy as Poppy (the film seems to say) lacks the imaginative competence to understand someone as miserable as Scott. He's beyond her emotional range, as she is beyond his. Leigh develops a film his own way: He works for weeks with the actors at improvising both character and story, then boils their work down into a script and directs them with precision. The bristling tension this generates between Poppy and Scott (played with fierce vehemence by Eddie Marsan) becomes a black hole that for a while threatens to swallow the entire film, not to mention Poppy's happiness. Instead it becomes the counterpoint to everything else Leigh shows us. In the end, he delivers a quirky, surprising and highly watch-able comedy. He doesn't define happiness; he depicts it, in all its complexity. What looks at the start like Poppy's chirpiness turns out to be the courageous act of someone who has learned to place in context not only the sins of others, but her own. That turns out to be Leigh's refreshing contribution to the emerging science of hedonics.

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