Category Archives: Video

Summer, time of darkness

Happiness is always a good thing, right? At least, all over my life I’ve assumed that happiness is something pretty and beautiful, and always worth pursuing for its own sake.

A recent TEDx talk by Meik Wiking of the Danish Happiness Research Institute has opened my eyes. Everything in life has a dark side, and that even applies to happiness.

800,000 suicides per year

Wiking starts his talk on The Dark Side of Happiness by pointing out that around 500 Danes commit suicide every year, although they live in the country that tops the World Happiness Report as happiest country of the world. Some people think that suicide rates are particularly high in Nordic countries like Sweden, Finland and Denmark, with long and dark winters (sometimes it is even thought that happiness rates remain high, because unhappy people filter themselves out by suicide!).

This is not the case, and many countries in Eastern Europe and across the East of Africa rank worse, as the WHO data show. To some extent, suicide rates might be affected by cultural factors, such as the high pressure to perform and strong shame notions in Korea and Japan. Lower levels in a country like Mexico may also be a result of strong social support. Either way, every year around 800,000 commit suicide. That figure is massive, especially when you consider that the death toll of one the most bloody conflicts and biggest human tragedies always in our headlines, the Syrian civil war, is estimated at around 400,000 in the last five years.


Suicide rates per 100,000 citizens. Data: World Health Organisation, 2016

Suicide rates per 100,000 citizens. Data: World Health Organisation, 2016


Social positions matter… a lot! 

But is there any correlation between happiness levels in society and the suicide? Wiking suggests that there could be a link. He claims that it is more difficult to be unhappy in a happy society. Imagine that Stine is unemployed and that she has had trouble in finding a job for some months. At the same time, most of her friends have great jobs, and excitedly tell her about their promotions or new cool projects when they meet for drinks together. Sounds sad, right? Now imagine the case of Jaime. He has also been looking for a job some time, but some of his friends are in the same boat. When they meet up, they exchange funny stories about failed job applications, or  share tips on how to land a dream job.

All things equal, Jaime will likely be happier than Stine. Our peer group, and the people who we compare to, matter for how we feel. Hence, it’s tougher to be unhappy in a country like Denmark, which scores a 7.526 in the World Happiness Report, than say in Spain, which scores 6.361. Our social position counts!

Wiking shares a couple of interesting experiments that reinforce that feeling. For instance, tests with social media show that when people are not exposed to other people’s seemingly perfect online lives for a week, happiness rates go up. Similarly, imagine asking hundred people if they’d rather earn €50,000 when everybody else earns half that amount, or €100,00 when everybody earns double. Typically, around 50% would prefer to earn less in absolute terms, but be richer than others.

Summer, a time of darkness

But one of the most shocking pieces of evidence are the quotes from depressed people. Contrasting what you might think, it is not Christmas that is the most difficult of the time for lonely people. In the survey that Wiking cites, spring and summer are worse: “Summer is a nightmare.” Everybody is sitting in parks, holding picknicks and barbecues with friends. For lonely people, this is the hardest time of the year. Other’s people happiness can generate a lot of unhappiness. And the impact of loneliness or happiness inequality is likely a lot bigger than the economic inequality.

Happiness also has a dark side, and summer may be a time of darkness. That truth is worth taking into account when we are thinking about happiness and public policies shaping quality of life.

Basic income: utopian dream or the road to happiness?

Few ideas are more exciting for a happiness economist than a basic income. It sound like utopia: free money for everybody. Could it actually work?

The Swiss basic income referendum

The Swiss electorate had the chance to have its say on Sunday. And the answer is a resounding ‘no’: 77% of the population opposed the idea of a basic income. In the design for the Swiss referendum, the basic income would be unconditional: nothing would be demanded from citizens in exchange for the transfer of money. The level of the basic income would have to be set by law, according to the initiators, but they argued that 2,500 CHF for adults (around 2300 Euro) and 625 CHF for children would be an appropriate figure. That sounds like a lot, but remember that Switzerland is rich: a salary for a supermarket worker is around 3,000 CHF.

Proponents of the basic income argued that it would “enable the population to live a dignified life and to participate in public life”, providing people the freedom to live their life as they want. They also argued that basic income would be needed in an age where robotisation and digitisation would mean that many current jobs won’t exist anymore in ten years. The basic income has also been portrayed as an easier way to provide social security in a modernised and more efficient welfare state.

Opponents argued – not surprisingly – that the math behind the idea doesn’t add up. According to estimates, the Swiss state would spend around 200 bn CHF, or 35% of GDP, to pay its citizens such a basic income. It would require around 25 bn CHF extra in taxation revenue (which may have pros, as we saw last week) or expenditure cuts to finance the scheme. Beyond that, the idea would risk to destabilise the entire economy, as people wouldn’t work as much as before. In addition, there were moral arguments on the national laziness that would ensue.

Switzerland won’t have a basic income. But don’t believe proponents are demotivated by the loss. Instead, they see the fact that over 20% supported such a radical income as a sign that the real public debate is only about to start.

Performance by the initiators of the referendum, who dumped 8 million coins at a square when they reached the necessary number of 125,000 signatures to call the referendum. Source: Wikipedia,

Performance by the initiators of the referendum, who dumped 8 million coins at a square when they reached the necessary number of 125,000 signatures to call the referendum. Source: Wikipedia,

A Finnish experiment in simplification

While I am sympathetic to the idea, I do have my doubts on the math. It might be worth studying the consequences of a basic income for a smaller group, before implementing it for everybody. That is exactly what will be done in Finland: in 2017, it will provide a basic income to 10,000 lucky sampled citizens. Participation is mandatory. Importantly, the Finnish experiment will also simplify the social security system as part of the exercise.

Some proponents support basic income as a way to rationalise the various categories of social expenditure. Finland has around 100 different categories of social security spending, and during the experiment 50 of these would be replace by one single basic income. Also in other countries, citizens are subsidised for several hundreds of euro per month, for instance via services accessed for free. Couldn’t all this be simplified into one basic income? Or would it still be impossible to fund it? The Finnish experiment will be closely watched.

Free money, a way to happiness

Even if we may be unable to introduce free money for all, there are a couple of lucky people who actually received a basic income. The German foundation Mein Grundeinkommen crowd-funds a basic income: every time when they’ve gathered 12,000 Euro, one winner gets a basic income for one year. And according to its director Michael Bohmeyer (who receives his own monthly 1000 Euro basic income via the proceeds of shares in the company he left), the results are amazing.

Speaking at a panel discussion in Brussels, Bohmeyer told how he feels a lot more free, secure and relaxed with his basic income. When receiving the income, he realised how much people are in running mode every day. Work and the need to have a salary to provide for our life results in a lot of stress.

In his experience, that doesn’t mean that nobody would work anymore if they receive a basic income. Of the around 40 people who won a basic income through the lottery, all but one continued to work. And maybe it’s an issue of low trust in others: when asked if others would still work when they have a basic income, around 80% said no. When the question was if they themselves would still work, around 90% said they’d continue to work, says Bohmeyer (video in German).

Basic income may not only about simplified social security, but also about a better work-life balance and higher happiness. Let’s hope that the Finnish experiences shows that it is actually possible to get the math right.

For another passionate case on basic income, see the talk of Rutger Bregman, a Dutch journalist and basic income enthousiast. He wrote a book on the basic income under the title ‘Utopia for Realists‘.

Keynes’ dream: how to get to a 15-hour working week by 2030

For many ages to come the old Adam will be so strong in us that everybody will need to do some work if he is to be contented. We shall do more things for ourselves than is usual with the rich to-day, only too glad to have small duties and tasks and routines. But beyond this, we shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter-to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible. Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while. For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!

In his essay on “The Economic Possibilities of Our Grandchildren” from 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes famously predicted that in the future, people would only work fifteen hours a week. In hundred years, he wrote, the standard of life in progressive countries would be four to eight times higher than in 1930. In the extract above, he wrote that  for ‘the old Adam’ in 1930, a fifteen-hour working week would be necessary to fairly divide the available work across the population.

With 14 years to go, there’s still a lot that needs to be changed!

Considering the gap between current working hours of 35 (officially in France), 40 hours for most and 50-60 or more for workaholics, maybe we should strive to reduce our working hours in smaller steps at first?

According to OECD data, the average working hours per year stands at 1770 hours per year across the OECD countries. These are not equally divided through the year (think of Easter, summer, and Christmas breaks): the weekly average is probably around 37 hours. These figures are actually worked hours, per worker, so including part-time workers and seasonal labour.

Against prejudices, the number of hours stands at 42 in Greece; in Germany and the Netherlands, the average is around 30. In the latter two, these figures are skewed by the high proportion of part-time workers, but also can be seen as a sign of high labour productivity! And surprisingly, it’s not Americans or Japanese that put in most hours. Instead, the workaholics of the OECD live in… Mexico. At 2238 hours per year and some 45 per year, the average person’s working week is some 50% longer than in Germany and the Netherlands.

Working hours in euro area and selected third countries. Source: OECD

Working hours in euro area and selected third countries (click to enlarge) Source: OECD


Step 1: down to 30 by 2020

What if we could achieve this level of 30 hours without these tricks? In their history, the Green and Socialist Parties in Sweden have aimed to reduce working hours to 30 per week. Scandinavian countries have a reputation for a healthy work-life balance and indeed are towards the left of the curve. Swedes work a bit more than the French with their 35-hour working week policy.

Last year, a retirement home in Gothenburg started to experiment with a 30-hour working week. Nurses tell researchers they feel they have more energy. The experiment is funded with a subsidy of around 500,000 euros to compensate for the higher number of staff needed to care for the residents.

But other examples cited in another article, such as creative and service industries, suggest that not so much more staff is needed. People still want to do a good job, and may achieve similar levels of productivity in six hours as in eight, says an app developer. With some testing and refinement, wouldn’t we able to get this rolled out by 2020?

Step 2: let’s get down to 21 by 2025

From the perspective of the new economics foundation, a think-tank on “economics as if people and the planet mattered”, getting down to 30 is good, but only halfway there. In a pamphlet and a TEDx talk, researcher Anna Coote argued for a 21-hour working week ambition (she herself, a recovering workaholic, is at 30 hours).

She argues that shorter working weeks would have a range of social and environmental advantages. For instance, it would distribute work more evenly across society, and hence reduce unemployment, and increase our ecological footprint. Now, we are getting close to Keynes’ expectations 85 years back. Doesn’t it sound utopian to work only four/five hours per day, four or five days per week? Or is it really feasible to do this within ten years, coinciding with decarbonisation of the economy and lower energy use to meet the targets of the COP21 climate change agreement?

Step 3: down to 15 by 2030 – or why not limit us to 4 hours?

But for the American dream, 21 hours is not good enough, and we might be able to do better than Keynes’ 15 hours. American dream salesman and self-help author Tim Ferriss wrote a well-known book entitled the ‘Four-Hour Working Week‘. In the book, he explains that for most entrepreneurs, a small amount of clients brings in most of the revenue. As such, by focusing on these, outsourcing all support functions, and living in low-cost countries, Ferriss claims it is possible to only work four hours a week. Whether you take this as a serious career option or too-good-to-be-true, it’s not a model that could apply to society as a whole.

If everybody were to work only four hours, our economic system would come to a stop. But Keynes 15 hours? If we really change our economy’s paradigm, maybe we can get it done by 2030…

One million migrants and the island of all together

In 2015, the European migration crisis brought out the worst of many people. Hungary and several other countries on the Western Balkans route built fences. Population in destinations countries like Germany, Netherlands, Sweden and elsewhere protested out of anger and fear of asylum seekers, too often leading to violent confrontations. The Danish government undertook plans to seize asylum seeker’s personal goods. Sweden reduced mobility on the Oresund bridge, straining the connection between Copenhagen and Malmo and prompting Denmark to reintroduce border controls. The Schengen passport-free travel zone is under collapse. Populist parties reign in the polls in France, The Netherlands and elsewhere. The list goes on.

It is true that the large numbers of migrants put a strain on systems. It is impossible to orderly register and assist the amounts of people now. But it’s also useful to put the numbers in perspective: outgoing UN High Commissioner for Refugees Guterres pointed out that in absolute numbers, the 1 million people reaching Europe is high. But in relative numbers, compared to a population of over 500 million, the number is rather small, especially in comparison to the refugees received by Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

Ultimately, the refugees are not numbers,  but people. A documentary shot on Lesbos by Dutch filmmakers Philip Brink and Marieke van der Velden shows this very clearly. In their documentary “The Island of All Together”, they pair refugees, most from Syria, with vacationers from the Netherlands, Germany and the UK. The people-to-people conversations between refugee and tourist show that ultimately, the human connection factor is stronger than prejudice and fear. A wonderful film showing the human face between the two sides of the crisis.

The Island of all Together (English subtitles) from Philip & Marieke on Vimeo.

Seligman, a founding father of positive psychology

George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton. For most people in the United States and elsewhere, these names probably ring a bell. Together with may others, these man count under the Founding Fathers of the United States.

Could anybody be considered as a the founding father of happiness studies, or ‘positive psychology’ as the academic discipline is usually called? On such a list, academics like Christopher Peterson, Ed Diener, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Daniel Kahnemann, and Ruut Veenhoven deserve to be mentioned. And although every movement grows as result of interaction and cross-fertilisation, Martin Seligman probably is the primus inter pares. As president of the American Psychological Association, Seligman decided to focus his term on positive psychology.

What are Seligman’s achievements?

Getting up from a 2 to a 5…

As Seligman very well explains in his TED talk, psychology from its emergence in the early 20th century has been preoccupied with curing ill people. Psychologists have aimed to get people who score a 2 or a 3 up to a 5 or a 6. As a result of the focus on misery, psychologist have developed a complex system of classification and treatment of disorders. A large amount of psychological disorders that make people miserable can now be treated: a great advance for science.

… or from a 5 to an 8?

At the same time, there has been less attention for getting people that already score a 5 or a 6  up to a 7, 8 or 9 – or to understand what a 9 in happiness actually means. Come in Selligman and other positive psychologists. Since the 1980s, many scholars have measured and modeled happiness, and researched the link with happiness. Happiness is correlated with a lot of positive things, from longer healthy life years to better marriages and social relationships, and better performance in the education systems.

What an 8 means: flourishing

One of the most important contributions from Seligman is modeling what happiness is about, and what makes people ‘flourish’ in their personal life. Flourish is also the title of his 2011 book in which explains his ideas. This model is summarised with the acronym ‘PERMA’, standing for:

  • Positive Relations
  • Engagement
  • positive Relations
  • Meaning; and
  • Accomplishment

… as five elements contributing to a pleasant, good, or meaningful life.

The PERMA model. Source: Authentic Happiness pages, Penn University

The PERMA model. Source: Authentic Happiness website, Penn University


The next step: positive interventions

Then, the next step of the field of positive psychology is to find out what it is that gets people up to the higher numbers. This is where we get to ‘positive interventions’, or steps that can contribute to our happiness. Dr. Seligman and his team have developed and tested some twelve positive interventions.

In his talk, Seligman describes a few of them:

  • Three good things. Every evening, write down ‘three good things’ that happen during that day. This exercise trains gratitude
  • Have a beautiful day. The concept here is to ‘design’ a day to spend in a very pleasant way.
  • Gratitude visit. Think of someone important in your life who you couldn’t thank enough for their support to you. Write down why you appreciate what they’ve done for you. And then go and visit them to tell them.

Which of these would you like to try?


Inside Out: our emotions make use who we are

What would happen if our emotions would just disappear? Are we able to regulate our behaviour if we wouldn’t be able to feel joy or sadness anymore?

Those questions form the main idea behind the recent Disney-Pixar movie Inside Out. The movie finds a simple solution to represent the complexity of human emotions. The emotions of the main character, the 11-year-old Riley, are steered in her head by five personas: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger. They are represented by coloured characters, jointly managing her actions. Mostly they act in concordance, but sometimes there are conflicts between emotions wanting Riley to feel differently.

Riley's emotions Anger, Disgust, Joy, Fear, and Sadness.

Riley’s emotions Anger, Disgust, Joy, Fear, and Sadness.

For Riley, a happy and positive girl, the energetic personality of Joy is the dominant emotion. Joy doesn’t refrain from bossing around the other four emotions as she deems fit to make Riley feel joyful. Beyond determining how Riley feels, the emotions also serve as administrators of her memory. Every day, they collect her memories (in the form of the colourful balls at the back of the image, and associated with one of the emotions), before they are shipped off to her long-term memory.

Inside Out shows the complexity of interacting emotions, but also demonstrates how our emotions make us who we are. When Riley and her family move from her beloved Minnesota to a small and dirty house in San Francisco, she becomes unhappy. And when Joy and Sadness get lost, Riley is unable to feel these emotions.

Riley’s personality flattens as the remaining emotions Fear, Disgust and Anger are made responsible to administer her behaviour. With a less rich variation in emotions – and no positive emotions – Riley becomes a more grey personality, and the entire tone of the movie changes.

Emotions makes us who we are. Without Joy and Sadness, Riley is not herself anymore. Riley’s inability to communicate with her parents and her schoolmates also demonstrates how important emotions are to make individuals function in a social group. In a way, Riley becomes like a psychopath unable to have feelings. It’s true that psychopaths can commit the most heinous crimes, precisely because of their inability to feel remorse (small parenthesis: it appears that CEOs are more likely than a typical person to have characteristics of psychopaths – it increases the chance of success in business).

Beyond demonstrating the importance of positive emotions that positive psychologists are so interested in, the movie also very visually shows how people and their emotions interact. One of the most interesting scenes in the movie is a family dinner, where it shows Riley’s three remaining emotions, but also how all five emotions in her father’s and mother’s head steer the interaction.

As a human being it happens so often that we interact with someone – our partner, a family member, a friend or a colleague – whose reaction we don’t understand. Rather than wondering why they behave as erratically as they do, we could try to image five contrary emotions in their heads, attempting to find an emotional ‘correct’ response. Inside Out’s visual representation of the complexity of emotions does not only make a nice film for children and adults, but also helps us imagine how other people could feel.

Happiness in the past, present and future

Robert Biswas-Diener is one of the most original thinkers on happiness I know. His work provides a smart counterweight to the ‘happiologist’ part of positive psychology. A happiness consultant himself, he observes that within the ‘happiness biz‘, there are a lot of people who appear to see happiness at work as the one and only goal.

Interestingly, Biswas-Diener does not agree. He points that when people are happy, they are likely to have a ‘good enough’ philosophy. Gratitude and acceptance form one aspect of happiness. But being grateful with what you have can also hinder self-improvement. Instead, Biswas-Diener believes in the ‘upside of your dark side’: negative emotions like guilt, grief and anger can drive our actions and help us grow.

This is a very helpful contribution to the discipline of positive psychology, which sometimes appears to believe that acceptance and gratitude can take away real problems. Being positive can help in dealing with problems, but cannot take them away. A positive mindset should inspire real actions to face difficulties.

Happiness is in the past..

Only last week I came across Biswas-Diener’s TED talk, with the tile ‘Your Happiest Days are Behind You’. In his talk, Biswas-Diener answers one of the fundamental questions:

How can I be happier?

The common tendency of individuals is to see happiness as something in the future. One of the main reasons why people are unhappy is that they project happiness on goals they haven’t achieved yet. And often, these goals are conflicting:

‘If only I met a nice girl’.

‘If only I had a child’.

‘If only I had that dream job at the Commission.’

‘If only I could work less, and have more holidays’

As Biswas-Diener formulates it: the future is an unreliable sources of happiness. How can we escape from our own expectations about the future? There are various ways out. One of them is by manufactured or ‘synthetic happiness‘, as psychologist Dan Gilbert says. What my answer is, I’ll say below. But first, let’s look at Biswas-Diener’s answer.

The past is the source of happiness…

In his very, very worthwhile talk, Biswas-Diener says that the past, not the future, is the source of happiness. The happiest days are behind you. And with a personal story that I absolutely recommend you to watch, he tells us why he so much believes in the past as a source of happiness. The gist is as follows: by remembering happy moments of the past, you will be able to recreate moments of happiness, and you will experience them again.

Have you watched the story? Can you imagine the race between Robert and the little girl in the slum of Calcutta? Great!

Robert states that memories like this race are the ones that are the answer to the question ‘how can I be happier’. And I agree that remembering happy experience is a very significant part of the answer. But I wonder how reliable the effect remains when one remembers the same memory more often. I would expect there is a somewhat limited life span, as the ‘happiness impact’ of these emotional moments may wear off when you tell or relive the story more regularly.

Compare it to a band playing their hit singles: initially it’s great to see the crowd cheer when they hear your top hit. But if concert after concert, day after day, all the audience wants to hear is the same songs, it doesn’t feel the same anymore. A diverse set of top hits (and happy moments!) thus is important.

… or is it the present?

Therefore, I’d argue that neither the future, nor the past are truly reliable sources of happiness. Instead, I would focus on… the present. Ultimately, our life is lived in the now, not in the future nor in the post. Our aim should be to spent our ‘nows’ – the moment that is easiest to control – in a way that makes us happy. We can go out on a day when the weather is nice. We can do sports, meet friends, or work on goals that are important for us. And by doing so, and appreciating the great moments along the way, we both work on a happy future and create a supply of happy memories that we can enjoy again.


The best thing about blogging about happiness, I’ve  already written before, is receiving articles and links related to the topic. All of these articles and videos are little gifts. Most of the time, they bring some interesting facts or news – or they bring a smile to my face. There are many serious things to write about happiness. A nice feel good video often can transmit what happiness is in a better way.

Like the Smile Man short film below, which I received from Julia.

Imagine you are always smiling. That is what happens to the main character in the film, due to paralysis of your face muscles.  Smiling always, it turns out,is not easy. I tried for a couple of minutes, but gave up. It feels funny in a way, but it simply hurts my face.

In the film, similarly, artificial and constant smiling results in a series of practical problems. But it also brings about a personal connection and the realisation that the power of a genuine smile is enormous.

Who’s responsible for your work-life balance? You!

Many of us in the work force are facing the same challenge: how to balance our working life with our private life.

In many  organisations, work gives great opportunities for personal development. In well-managed organisations, team members can pool their skills and jointly create a meaningful project. And that is often exactly what skilled creatives in the 21st century are looking for. But whether it is due to demanding bosses or through inherent perfectionism of the employee, the risk that work takes too much time out of a weekday is very present.

Few people live in Denmark, where the working culture seems to allow a good balance between work and private life. At least in the Brussels labour market that I am most familiar with, a strong working ethic is very common. Checking emails in the evening or already during the metro ride home? Responding a colleague during the holidays? Planning Monday’s to-do-list during the weekend? I think it occurs to most people I work with.

On a day that I got up in the early morning to start working, I stumbled on a TEDx talk on work-life balance by a fellow called Nigel Marsh. In his talk, he describes his ideal working day:

Wake up well-rested. Have sex. Walk the dog. Have breakfast with my wife and kids. Have sex again. Drive the kids to school. Do three hours of work. Meet in a mate to do sports in the park during lunch break. Do three more hours of work. Meet some mates for a drink. Drive home for dinner with my wife and kids. Meditate for half an hour. Have sex. Walk the dog. Have sex again. Go to sleep.

I fear that most work organisations are not fully compatible with this working ethic…

But the lessons from Nigel are serious. There are at least two important points in his talk. Firstly, certain career choices are incompatible with a meaningful family life. This is often forgotten or neglected, but it is absolutely true. In the Netherlands, there are some examples from politicians that have taken a step back to spend more time with their family. Mostly, they receive cynical reactions doubting their chances for survival. But it’s obvious: if your job requires you to always be on the job or to travel a lot, this will certainly affect your social and family life. Not everybody wants to make such a sacrifice.

But even outside these extreme cases, he makes another very important point. In the end, it is nobody but you who is responsible for your own work-life balance. Your boss ideally facilitates your happiness at work. Creches and paternity leave, a personal working culture or secondary benefits will all make you help to feel more at ease with your job. Still, your hours also matter. In the short term, your boss decides about your hours and when there is a need for overtime. But in the long term, there is only one person who decides how much and when you work: you!

La Grande Bellezza & the ability to enjoy our lives

I have never read a novel in my life. There are only so many hours in the day and I have decided to fill them with activities rather than made-up stories” – Paul Dolan, Professor of Behavioural Science, London School of Economics

In my posts about happiness I don’t only write about reality, sharing experiences from travels and other activities or knowledge from scientific research on how our happiness works. For me, writing about happiness also means writing about the imagined worlds of literature, arts, and movies.

Happiness in made-up stories

When I have the time, I like to read and let the stories bring me to new places and join the characters on their journey through life. I agree with Paul Dolan, quoted above, when he recommends an active life. It’s true that being active is one of the ways to well-being. But I also have a vivid imagination. Contrary to Dolan, I think that made-up stories can result in real experiences, such as a feel of calm, excitement, or even  happiness.

Anybody who has ever enjoyed a novel or a movie would agree. There are a few movies that require us to use all our senses to grasp its meaning. For me, La Grande Bellezza, is one movie that is just like that.

I recently re-watched the story about Jep Gambardella (played by Toni Servillo), at 65 years the king of the jet-set of Rome. He deserves his fame to a novel he wrote over 40 years ago. Currently, he passes his days at big parties, artistic gatherings, his rooftop terrace with hammock in front of the Colosseum, and altogether living a life of mundanity.

Jep in La Grande Bellezza.

Jep in La Grande Bellezza.


La Grande Bellezza, directed by Paolo Sorrentino and Oscar winner in 2014, is a story about Rome, about art, and ultimately about (un)happiness. Since the beginning of philosophy, we have been looking for the answer to the question: ‘what is happiness’?. Traditionally, two answers have been dominant to that question: hedonism and meaning.

Let’s take hedonism, also known as utility or pleasure, first. This form is very much present in La Grande Bellezza. Objectively, Jep’s life is great: he attends the big parties and shows in town, he eats when he wants, sleeps with women when he wants. Jep describes the aim of his life in Rome as follows:

When I came to Rome at the age of 26, I fell pretty swiftly into what might be defined as the whirl of the high life, but I didn’t just want to live the high life, i wanted to be the king of the high life. I didn’t just want to attend parties, I wanted the power to make them fail.


The second answer to the question ‘what is happiness?’ is meaning. At the same time as being the king of the high life, Jep is an artistic soul, observing the silence, his sentiments, emotions, and his fears… As a journalist and writer, but also as an individual, he is interested in the misery of human beings.

I was destined to be sensitive. I was destined to write. I was destined to be Jep.

La Grande Bellezza is a movie from which you can extract different messages or meanings. For me, the story of Jep is one of a failure to find happiness in meaning. His artistic career kicked off with a bang over forty years ago, when the girl he loved inspired him to write a revolutionary piece of literature. But with the girl, also his ability to write these kind of novels is gone. With the meaning lost, he tries – and fails – to find happiness in hedonism.

The wisdom to enjoy our live

In a sense, Jep is the most tragic of characters in a tragic movie. At the same time, La Grande Bellezza is a story that beautifully grasps many concepts about the beauty of life. If beauty is the ability and wisdom how to enjoy our life, as I read as a comment to a YouTube video with part of the soundtrack, there is not so much beauty in La Grande Bellezza as it may seem at first.

Beauty is the ability and wisdom how to enjoy our live

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