At-risk youths. Migrant workers. The elderly. Neurodiverse people. Ex-offenders. Underprivileged families.

What does happiness mean to each of these marginalised groups, and how is your idea of happiness different from theirs?

The Happiness Film Festival 2021, happening from 19 to 28 March, seeks to explore this question through six international films, each paired with a local short film followed by a panel discussion.

The theme of 2021’s festival is “An Inclusive Journey Towards Happiness”, which puts the focus of the discussions on vulnerable and marginalised groups in society.

“Covid-19 has exposed the cracks in society even more. It’s not that we are not doing enough but that we can do more to support these marginalised people,” co-founder of Happiness Initiative Sherman Ho, 32, tells The Pride.

Understanding different perspectives

Films for Happiness Film Festival
Image source: Happiness Initiative

The films include Swedish comedy-drama A Man Called Ove, based on the bestselling Fredrik Backman novel of the same name. The titular anti-hero Ove (the quintessential grumpy old man) is a retiree with strict principles and a short fuse who forms an unlikely friendship with a young migrant family who moves in next door.

Skid Row Marathon addresses the lives of ex-offenders, centreing around a Los Angeles judge who starts a long-distance running club at a homeless shelter in one of the poorest parts of the city. The story follows the club members, a motley group of homeless people, addicts and ex-convicts, who come together to train for international marathons.

In the heartwarming Hong Kong drama Still Human, starring veteran actor Anthony Wong, a paralyzed and despondent Hong Kong man meets his new Filipino domestic helper who puts her dream on hold to earn a living in a different country. Together, they learn to face the different seasons of life.

Other films in the festival line-up are The Specials, which looks at people with autism; Sorry We Missed You, about an underprivileged family stretched to its breaking point; and John Denver Trending, a look at how youths deal with social media and mental wellness.

Local Films for Happiness Film Festival
Image source: Happiness Initiative

Among the local short films, curated by independent non-profit visual arts space Objectifs, viewers can expect to watch Bangla by Idette Chen, which tells a story about an injured migrant worker who ends up moonlighting at a struggling hawker stall in his desperation to send money home.

It sheds light on the seemingly transactional local-foreigner relationship in Singapore.

Another short film, White Carnations by Tang Wan Xin, explores the struggle of a single mother trying to get her son with special needs to a mainstream primary school.

“I hope viewers will go away with an insight, whether it is to learn something new about a particular group, or how they can better support them,” Sherman says.

“The ways of support could be very simple. For example, how do we react if we see an autistic child act out in public?”

He adds that the dialogues with community leaders who have been working at the ground-up level, will unpack the films and help viewers understand how Singaporeans as a society can support these groups.

The pursuit of happiness

Happiness Initiative
Image source: Happiness Initiative

Different groups of people may find different ways to find their own joie de vivre, but there are certain underlying commonalities to achieving greater happiness in our lives.

“One of the key aspects is social support,” Sherman says. “This is consistent with research that social support is a crucial component when it comes to well being.”

This could take many forms such as spending time with family, checking in with friends, and volunteering with the underprivileged, he says.

The World Happiness Report, a survey of the state of global happiness that ranks 156 countries by how happy their citizens perceive themselves to be, showed that almost one third of happiness is contributed due to social support (defined as having someone you can turn to in your times of need).

In one of the world’s longest studies of adult life, an almost 80-year-old study by Harvard University researchers found that our relationships are the greatest predictor of whether we are healthy and happy.

Embracing community helps us live longer, and be happier.

Yet today the younger generation is facing a different challenge in the pursuit of happiness – social comparison.

Sherman says: “One phenomenon when you talk about happiness is a reference point… We tend to compare. Now it’s amplified much more because of social media because everyone in the world is a reference point.”

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“This is why mental health is a big issue for youths. A lot of their lives are on social media. When they are not mindful of these effects that they have on your mind, it can lead them to negative thoughts. And that’s what the opening film, John Denver Trending, addresses.”

To Sherman, happiness is doing something that is meaningful and bigger than himself, which is one of the reasons why he left the finance industry and co-founded Happiness Initiative with Simon Leow, who holds a masters in Applied Positive Psychology.

“Money, health care, and safety are important factors that contribute to our happiness. But once these needs are met, we need something closer to our hearts, such as passion, purpose, and altruism,” Simon says.

Helping people become happier

Happiness Initiative is a social enterprise that translates the science of happiness and well-being into helping people live a more fulfilling life.

Sherman says: “The core basis when we talk about happiness is that it has to be an inclusive conversation. Many organisations out there talk about happiness and well-being and they run paid courses.”

“When we first started out, we wanted to attend this large-scale positive psychology course in Australia. Then we realised that the conference fee cost $1,000 per person, which we couldn’t afford. That made us question why this idea of happiness seems to be more accessible only to people who are more well-off.”

Happiness Film Festival
Image source: Happiness Initiative

Over the last few years, the team at Happiness Initiative has organised conferences, online webinars and workshops to promote happiness through learnable skills. They launched the first Happiness film festival in 2019 and this year is its second run.

The team is excited to move into a community well-being programme where they teach skills at a community level as a ground-up initiative, which they hope will help them and their participants understand happiness better.

Sherman says: “I feel that this idea of happiness is the same for everyone but perhaps we experience it differently.”

“We may think that because we are more well-off, we know better about happiness than these marginalised groups but actually sometimes we have more to learn about happiness from them than they do from us.”

Visit to book tickets to the Happiness Film Festival 2021.

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Top Image: Happiness Initiative