Monday, 26 November 2007


“The greatest part of our happiness depends on our dispositions, not our circumstances.” -
Martha Washington

Happiness… What is it? When do we feel happy? When can we truly say we are content with our lot in life and be satisfied, pleased, joyful? For me personally, happiness is health, a comfortable home, a job I enjoy doing and people around me whom I love and who love me. That sort of existence provides me with many moments of delight, instances of enjoyment, long-term satisfaction and pleasure that is additive with each passing day. Much of that state of happiness depends on giving rather than receiving. I am happiest when I can make others happy too. Happiness hinges on our interactions with other people, it is a state that withers if we are living in isolation, relying only on selfish goals to provide us with feelings of well-being.

And money, what about money? I am reminded of the old adage: “Anyone who says you can't buy happiness just doesn't know where to shop.” But a surplus of money will often only allow us to buy luxuries and superfluities. This will make people go into a consumer frenzy because as Marvin J. Ashton says: “You can never get enough of the things you don't need, because the things you don't need can never satisfy.” Imagine being surrounded by every material comfort and all the consumer goods you ever wanted. Imagine being able to have anything you ever dreamed of having. And as soon as you saw something that can be bought you could buy it. Would that make you happy? Bertrand Russell maintains that to be happy we must always be hankering after something: “To be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness.” With this I tend to agree…

Having prefaced my Movie Monday entry in this way, let me now consider the film that I’ll talk about: Gabriele Muccino’s 2006 film “The Pursuit of Happyness”. This is a film inspired by a true story, that of Chris Gardner, played by Will Smith in one of his better roles. Jaden Smith (Will Smith’s own son) plays Gardner’s young son very well and the movie is a predictable rags to riches story, a glorification of the “American Dream”, a “success-rewards-those-who pursue-it” story.

I must admit, I enjoyed the film; there was poignancy and pathos in it, there was some humour and even though the plot was conventional and unsurprising, the film could be watched with enjoyment. The portrayal of the relationship between father and young son was sensitively done and one could forgive the heavy-handedness of the plot and the repetition of some scenes (how many times can someone lose and find a portable bone scanner in a big city like San Francisco?). One could even forgive the Hollywood sandpaper and veneer job over some of reality’s harder edges. Upon seeing the film ending, one could rejoice in the personal success of Chris Gardner - at least all of this on first viewing.

However, on reflection (and I suspect on second viewing of the film), the sugar coating dissolves somewhat. I thought about the relationship Chris has with his long-suffering wife and her desperation that causes her to abandon him and their son. The scene where the child asks his father “is it my fault that mommy left us?” caused me to ask, which brand of happiness is Chris Gardner pursuing? Is happiness in his case equated with earning a big salary and achieving success as stockbroker (that arch-stalwart of capitalistic vocations!)? What has he sacrificed to achieve that? At what cost, success?

If a family is united, if the parents love one another and their prime goal is the happiness of their children, then surely their first goal is to keep the family together? Chris wants to be a successful salesman selling expensive (and unnecessary) medical equipment. He sacrifices the integrity of his family in order to be a success in this job. He becomes a trainee stockbroker and often puts his son in situations that could prove to be threatening for the child, physically and psychologically. He realises his dream, he succeeds in his quest for status, prestige and all importantly, money. He too can have a private box at the football game now. That is his happiness.

I think on reflection, what I found objectionable about the movie was that it obliterates the middle classes from its vision of the world. Chris Gardner must be either a down-and-outer living in poverty, or alternatively he must be a high-flying executive earning hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars by advising people how to invest and play the stock market. The world is black or white. Black is poverty and misery, white is luxury and happiness. His love for his son is the only middle ground, but even that is secondary to his first priority, which is his personal “success”, whatever that is, at whichever time. Chris Gardner on second consideration is quite selfish. He is someone who knows what skid row is like and will do anything to raise himself up by the scruff of his neck to the upper echelons where money means everything. Is this what the American Dream is all about? Is success on a personal, selfish level more important than anything else? Is to have money the only way we can be successful, worthy of respect, happy?

The bad guys are the needy, the impoverished the people of Gardner’s class (consider how his friend does not give him the $14 he owes him – although he does help him move). The good guys are the rich ones – they give Gardner opportunities, a perfect day at the football in a private box, ultimately a job and his boss who borrows $5 from him even has the integrity to return it! It IS all about money, isn’t it?

The film is quite disturbing the more I think about it and I wonder how I will feel about it on second viewing. On the one hand there is nobility, higher values, love between a father and his son, the just reward of effort, and the success that crowns the struggle of a worthy person. On the other hand there is the undercurrent of overt, implicit and subliminal capitalistic propaganda. “You too can succeed and be happy (provided you make enough money)”…

Going back to what I started out with in this blog, I think Norman MacEwan sums it up pretty well: “Happiness is not so much in having as sharing. We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” Maybe I have it wrong. If you have seen this movie, tell me where I misinterpreted what it is all about.

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