By Jeff Sherman Staff Writer Published Sep 23, 2011 at 11:03 AM

Are you happy? What makes us happy? Is there a specific formula for happiness?

Do kids, marriage and money equate to a greater level of contentment? Do our parents and upbringing matter?

So many questions. Don't worry, though. These are some of the questions researchers are studying in a relatively new field called Positive Psychology.

Positive Psychology is the study of human thriving, an examination of how ordinary people can become happier and more fulfilled. This new scientific field attempts to understand those aspects of the human experience that make life worth living.

I've always felt that I can make myself happy. It's a choice. And, recent findings suggest an individual's actions can have a significant effect on happiness and satisfaction with one's life.

The film "Happy," directed by Academy Award nominated director Roko Belic, screens at the Milwaukee Film Festival and sets out to answer these questions and more by exploring the secrets behind our most valued emotion, happiness.

The movie is sponsored by Hapacus, a grassroots educational program based in Milwaukee that teaches principles of happiness. Hapacus is a combination of two words: happiness and abacus. Bob Pothier is the founder, so I asked him several questions about happiness and the movie. Define "happiness" and "success." Are they, in your estimate, one in the same?

Bob Pothier: "Happiness" is very different than "success." Success is a relative term that comes from our brain's need to "survive". Historically that meant fending off hostile tribes and beasts, protecting yourself, family and group from the elements and many other basic survival requirements. As a result, our brains are built to survive and in this world where those historic survival things aren't needed in the same way, our brain's default is to equate "success" (financial strength, accumulation of stuff, showy materialism) with survival.

"Happiness," however, is about a lot of other terms that are internal such as peace, joy, well-being, fulfillment, contentment, etc. The researchers tend to stay away from the terms "happy" and "happiness". They use terms such as "subjective well-being". These are internal terms that can only be defined by the person because what we're looking for is different for everyone.

Success is external and relative. Happiness is internal and absolute.

OMC: What are some of the universal predictors of personal happiness?

BP: The two primary predictors of personal happiness based on a lot of research are relationships and personal growth. Close and personal relationships have been termed "the deep truth" when it comes to happiness because it's by far the greatest predictor of happiness. It's about depth and quality of those relationships and not numbers. Facebook friends and Twitter followers will never equate to deep and meaningful relationships.

OMC:  I disagree about social media friendships. On the surface, you are correct.  Yet, online friendships can and do grow – if you invest in them like any other friendship – into deep, meaningful relationships.

BP:  You're right, they can eventually but the statistic that you have X Twitter followers and Y Facebook friends does not automatically equate into relationships that mean something.  Numbers don't matter, the depth and closeness of those relationships matter.  Who could you call at 2 a.m. for help and they would show up?  That's a good indication.

Personal growth is also a predictor because it is what counters the Adaptation Principle. The Adaptation Principle is our brain's survival mechanism in that we adapt to any situation, whether good or bad. So, if we buy a new car that car quickly because the norm. Similarly, if we lose a limb we also adapt to that and that becomes our baseline. Personal growth is the antithesis to the Adaptation Principle because our internal growth is a constant thing and very difficult for us to adapt to.

OMC: Can we choose to be happy?

BP: We are always "choosing" to be happy or sad based on how we think and how we choose to mold our circumstances. The problem is we aren't aware enough to make good decisions so those decisions tend to be automatic, based on what our parents and culture teach us or how we're pre-programmed from a genetic perspective. Positive Psychology (and Hapacus) is designed to make us more conscious of our decisions and help guide us to better decisions to be happier. Through making better decisions with our time and money and training our brains via cognitive training exercises we can improve our happiness.

OMC: Are you happy? Have you always been?

BP: I am naturally optimist about the future but very hard on myself about the past – meaning I question things I've done and berate myself for not having been better. Early in my life I pursued goals in a never-ending attempt at reaching happiness. I felt like if I went to the right school (Georgetown), got the best education (masters and law degrees), worked for the right companies (GE) and made a lot of money, I'd be happy. That did not work. But, about 10 years ago I came across the Positive Psychology movement and became fascinated by the research and findings. As a result I began changing my life and as a result I'm much happier now, not just anticipating it for the future.

OMC: What do you want to accomplish with this film?

BP: We want people to be aware that there is science in this area and being happier is possible. We want to bring attention to Positive Psychology and encourage its growth. There's a lot to learn and it's a constant process but we can be happier.

OMC: Are you a Norman Vincent Peale fan? And, who are favorite positivity authors/writers/bloggers?

BP: I've never read anything by Norman Vincent Peale. I'm not a fan of self-help materials based on someone's opinion, theory, dynamic personality or personal experiences. I'm drawn to Positive Psychology because it's based on scientific research. What fascinates me about Positive Psychology is that finally mental health and wellness is getting the resources and attention historically focused on mental illness. It's about time. We need to be mentally more healthy and that translates into greater happiness.

My favorite books (authors) are "The Happiness Hypothesis" (Dr. Jon Haidt), "Learned Optimism" and "Authentic Happiness" (Dr. Martin Seligman, "The How of Happiness" (Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky) and "Stumbling on Happiness" (Dr. Daniel Gilbert). There are many others in the world of Positive Psychology but if someone were starting out, I'd have them look into these books.

"Happy" movie times and locations:

  • Sept. 24, 2:30 p.m., Downer Theatre
  • Sept. 26, 9:45 p.m., Marcus North Shore Cinema
  • Sept. 29, 7:30 p.m., Oriental Theatre
  • Oct. 2, 5:15 p.m., Marcus Ridge Cinema

A free Positive Psychology panel discussion is being held at Boswell Books on Saturday, Sept. 24, from 4 to 6 p.m. Pothier will moderate the panel.

Jeff Sherman Staff Writer

A life-long and passionate community leader and Milwaukeean, Jeff Sherman is a co-founder of OnMilwaukee.

He grew up in Wauwatosa and graduated from Marquette University, as a Warrior. He holds an MBA from Cardinal Stritch University, and is the founding president of Young Professionals of Milwaukee (YPM)/Fuel Milwaukee.

Early in his career, Sherman was one of youngest members of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, and currently is involved in numerous civic and community groups - including board positions at The Wisconsin Center District, Wisconsin Club and Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.  He's honored to have been named to The Business Journal's "30 under 30" and Milwaukee Magazine's "35 under 35" lists.  

He owns a condo in Downtown and lives in greater Milwaukee with his wife Stephanie, his son, Jake, and daughter Pierce. He's a political, music, sports and news junkie and thinks, for what it's worth, that all new movies should be released in theaters, on demand, online and on DVD simultaneously.

He also thinks you should read OnMilwaukee each and every day.