Bad things happen, yes. But people should still be happy, right?
March 3, 2007 2:31 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to find books or movies about feeling happiness while living in a world with plenty of injustice, sorrow, evil, and corruption.

I'm not asking for books where people discover that humanity is good after all -- the world obviously will continue to have both good and bad. I want to explore how people can remain aware of bad stuff but not have it overtake them (via despair, anger, cynicism). I want to think about what to say to (perpetually) despairing or cynical friends besides "Just ignore all that and be happy anyway! Whee!" What is happiness, when it doesn't mean being ignorant, being numb to others' suffering, or being fake?

I'd like to find some books and movies out there that help me think this through. I have my own vague thoughts, but I'd like to find more articulate and philosophical responses. I'd especially like fictional examples that demonstrate how one actually lives out this philosophy, or fiction that helps a reader think all this through. Thank you for any suggestions!
posted by beatrice to Religion & Philosophy (27 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
La Vita e Bella (Life is Beautiful) comes to mind.
posted by onalark at 2:40 PM on March 3, 2007

The Greatest Salesman in the World. Be the change you want to see in the world.
posted by dropkick at 2:41 PM on March 3, 2007

I'd suggest looking into Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy. It's helped people for about 1500 years consider the possibilities of virtue and happiness in an uncertain and unjust world.
posted by Bromius at 2:44 PM on March 3, 2007

um, The Bible?
posted by ChasFile at 3:25 PM on March 3, 2007

john irving books tend to be sort of like that (i guess i'm thinking specifically of the world according to garp and cider house rules) also kurt vonnegut, though it's hard to say for sure whether they come off as more optimistic or slightly hysterical in the face of tragedy...

and i seem to remember that donnie darko (which is a great movie in general) had some stuff to say along these lines.
posted by lgyre at 3:32 PM on March 3, 2007

Films: "Harold and Maude", "Housekeeping", and "Modern Times."

In terms of what you're looking for, these films say what I believe is the only answer. No matter what war is being waged, what people are being enslaved, and who is dying of cancer, flowers still smell sweet, pie still tastes good and a blanket is still warm. And no matter how warm the blanket is, people are still dying horribly. The (not easy) trick is to learn to view live on both these levels and more.
posted by grumblebee at 3:39 PM on March 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

For movies that touch on these questions, I would recommend:
Tender Mercies" and Life Is Sweet (Mike Leigh a good director in general for this).

Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby is also an excellent movie that deals with some of these issues.
posted by extrabox at 3:42 PM on March 3, 2007

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusack
The Book of Everything by Guus Kuijer
posted by lampoil at 3:53 PM on March 3, 2007

Candide by Voltaire. I find inspiration in Candide's simple statement at the end of the novel.
posted by loosemouth at 3:54 PM on March 3, 2007

The overall themes of much of Ayn Rand's novels deal with this - her philosophy focused on what she termed a "benevolent universe," with happiness and productivity as the primary goal of people. You may find some good stuff on this list.
posted by davidmsc at 4:01 PM on March 3, 2007

Candide is also what came to mind. He mocks the opinion that you can find good in everything through the entire novel, & then, at the end, says this is because happiness comes from simply living and working, not striving for any lofty goal or worldly happiness.

Buddhism has a similar slant in which there is always suffering everywhere, but with/through mindfulness of work you can embrace it.
posted by devilsbrigade at 4:05 PM on March 3, 2007

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

-- Matthew Arnold
posted by Kirklander at 4:19 PM on March 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Actually, the novel A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry, fits your subject-matter to a "t." I can't give this novel enough praise --- it is incredibly good.
posted by jayder at 4:25 PM on March 3, 2007

The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell.
posted by buriedpaul at 4:33 PM on March 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

If you want something you can read on the train, the first forty pages of The Progress Paradox by Gregg Easterbrook point out that by every conceivable measure, everyone's lives are a lot better than they used to be. Historical perspective can be a good thing.
posted by mrbugsentry at 4:39 PM on March 3, 2007

i'd recommend the two collections of short stories by George Saunders: Pastoralia and In Persuasion Nation.

He writes in this very dark, Simpson-esque humor...but they are uplifting at the same time. Especially "In Persuasion Nation"
posted by cgs at 4:44 PM on March 3, 2007

This is the general theme of Buddhism as a whole: life is suffering, and there's a way out of the suffering. So much of the Dalai Lama's writing is on exactly this subject, as is a lot of writing about Zen that isn't about Zen itself.

The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living by the Dalai Lama is a good starting point in that regard. I've bought It's Easier Than You Think: The Buddhist Way To Happiness by Sylvia Boorstein for friends in similar situations before and it's served them well, although sometimes only on the second or third re-read. Boorstein is a Buddhist Jew whose writing is very light-hearted and grounded in Western reality, which gives her an advantage over His Holiness in that her writing seems more directly relevant to Westerners than does his.
posted by mendel at 5:01 PM on March 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

David Lynch's book Catching the Big Fish addresses this a bit, particularly in relation to the darkness of his films.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 5:06 PM on March 3, 2007

angela's ashes
posted by sergeant sandwich at 5:23 PM on March 3, 2007

Some people might disagree but I think this is exactly what High Fidelity does (it takes it another step showing that relationships, in addition to life, can be sad and deceitful and horrible but also that you can make it work out) and this is why I've always loved that movie.
I also think the excellent Little Miss Sunshine fits the criteria.
posted by shokod at 5:03 AM on March 4, 2007

Life Is Beautiful (La Vita รจ Bella) is great - but it's ultimately a fantasy, and it's hard to see a real cynic being very open to it. I also love Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind. And the Raymond Carver short story, "A Small, Good Thing". Although I don't know how to get a real cynic to sit through any of these things with an open mind. But I like you for trying :)

There's also this short little piece of writing I saw on, which is not a movie or a book, but I really like it. I think there's a courage, a defiance, in not giving in to cynicism and continuing to look for the good, however bad things may seem.

Maybe I'll have more suggestions for you later, as I'm always on the lookout for this kind of thing - and I look forward to reading everyone else's suggestions too. (Thanks for asking the question!)
posted by Ira.metafilter at 10:24 AM on March 4, 2007

A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Solzhenitsyn.
posted by hincandenza at 5:14 PM on March 4, 2007

Three that I stand by:

The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky
The Death of Ivan Ilych (short story) by Leo Tolstoy
The Farthest Shore by Ursula K Le Guin

All three gave me strong reactions. I recommend The Brothers Karamazov if you really want to dig deep into those philosophical discussions.
posted by elisynn at 7:47 PM on March 4, 2007

For me it was 'Amelie' that reminded me how it feels to enjoy childish delight. Watch little kids (in a non-creepy way) for inspiration. Roll down that grassy hill as fast as you can and then try to spring up and walk when you get to the bottom. Do that dumb stuff -because it is funny! If your hair is all full of grass, maybe even a little dirt and yet you still do not have a smile on your face, then you must further your studies! For a while I thought I was psychic then I realised no I'm just a Pessimist to the core and the world just happens to be fucked. Which is fine, I'm always right, good for me. For the first time in a long time to laugh or smile and experience something so real that it's somehow tangible was powerful for me. Today I like to think I'm a Realist. The world has ugliness, the world has beauty and only the ignorant cannot see both.
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 7:50 AM on March 5, 2007

A Time for Drunken Horses is a deeply moving film set in the Kurdistan region of Iran about perseverance and the value of family even when faced with dismaying circumstances. It's not a simple tale of being happy in the face of injustice but rather about the moments of joy and certitude that can still be found against all odds.
posted by rosebengal at 12:17 PM on March 5, 2007

Response by poster: Thank you to everyone for your great responses! I can't mark a best answer because I look forward to reading / watching so many of these.
posted by beatrice at 10:00 PM on March 5, 2007

Ishmael Beah, who wrote A Long Way Gone, was recently a guest on The Daily Show. Generally I'm not the type to go out and buy a book because of something like that, but I found him to be a compelling personality, and it turns out that his book is excellent. It tells the story of his experiences going from living in a small rural village in Sierra Leone to becoming a drug and violence addicted soldier and his eventual rescue and redemption by the UN and some generous strangers.
posted by feloniousmonk at 4:23 AM on March 6, 2007

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