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New PBS Documentary: Can Americans Be Happier?

New PBS Documentary: Can Americans Be Happier?PBS has announced that a new series will air during the first week of the 2010 new year that examines the question, Can Americans be happier?

This Emotional Life, a co-production of Vulcan Productions and the NOVA/WGBH Science Unit, unfolds across three, two-hour episodes, exploring the nature of the social relationships that are the key to our human happiness; the obstacles to happiness, negative emotions, which we can’t live with and can’t live without; and the sometimes misguided pursuit of happiness itself.

Each episode weaves together the compelling personal stories of ordinary people and the latest in brain science research, along with revealing comments from celebrities such as Chevy Chase, Larry David, Elizabeth Gilbert, Alanis Morissette, Katie Couric and Richard Gere.

“Science has revealed three important facts about happiness: You can’t be happy alone; you can’t be happy all the time; you can be happier than you are. Our three shows examine each of these three facts,” notes Harvard psychologist and best-selling author of Stumbling on Happiness, Professor Daniel Gilbert. Prof. Gilbert’s research has examined why people so often mispredict what will make them happy.

“This Emotional Life represents what television does best — it opens a window into real lives. People shared their personal stories, honestly and openly,” said Senior Executive Producer Richard Hutton of Vulcan Productions. “The results are dramatic. You’ll see first-hand how people, both ordinary and extraordinary, cope with challenges as they struggle to achieve greater happiness and fulfillment.”

“This Emotional Life is about human connections and understanding how our social interactions are deeply wired in our brains,” said Paula Apsell, Senior Executive Producer, NOVA/WGBH Science Unit and co-producer.

“The series looks at the latest, cutting-edge biological and social science behind our human nature to help us better understand what drives our emotions and what can lead us to happiness.”

The three episodes — which air on PBS January 4-6, 2010 (at 9:00 PM) — trace our relationships and what science reveals about them beginning with our very first one, the parent-child relationship, and how our connections to others impact our happiness. Below are descriptions of This Emotional Life’s three episodes:

Episode 1: Family, Friends & Lovers (January 4)

The first episode looks at the importance of relationships and why they are central to our emotional well-being. What are the cognitive and neurological processes underpinning our everyday interactions, and can they help us to understand why some relationships flourish and others fail? We meet a young boy adopted from a Russian orphanage, whose story illustrates how a lack of attachment in infancy fundamentally shapes his ability to build relationships for years to come. We meet the young parents of newborn twins; a couple in therapy for a troubled marriage; a teenager who was bullied with tragic consequences; two women grappling with the stress of workplace conflicts; and other characters — all to better understand the importance of social connections and relationships.

Episode 2: Facing Our Fears (January 5)

In the second episode, we look at emotions that are commonly regarded as obstacles to happiness — such as anger, fear, anxiety and despair. Why do we have these emotions and how can we best manage them? Our brains are designed for survival, and the negative emotions they create are vital to that mission. But those negative emotions can spiral out of control with debilitating effects. We meet a woman whose inability to control her temper is jeopardizing her relationships; a college student whose fear of flying is limiting her life; and a teenager on the eve of attending college who is struggling to overcome clinical depression. We also meet veterans with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and follow their journeys to find effective treatment. Across the episode, science reminds us that we are of two minds — a rational brain that’s relatively new and an emotional brain that’s older than time. Sometimes, emotion overwhelms reason, sometimes reason outwits emotion, and it is the endless struggle that makes our lives so painful, so joyous and so interesting.

Episode 3: Rethinking Happiness (January 6)

Finally, the last episode explores happiness. It is so critical to our well-being and, yet, it remains such an elusive goal for many of us. What is it, why is it important and how can we attain more of it? We meet individuals facing major turning points in their lives — a job loss, a cancer diagnosis, the death of a child, an accident — as well as those facing more common struggles. We learn from the latest research that we often incorrectly predict what will bring us greater happiness, leading us to look for it in the wrong places. As the study of behavior turns more toward positive emotions, we explore the latest research on the activities and qualities that foster them, such as meditation, compassion, forgiveness and altruism. We also share the remarkable stories of resilient individuals whom scientists are studying in order to learn more about us all, including a man who overcame an abusive childhood to become a renowned surgeon and a Vietnam veteran who survived torture, solitary confinement and seven years as a POW, yet emerged emotionally unscathed. Understanding why some people have the ability to bounce back after disaster strikes, while others do not, sheds light on how all of us can lead happier, more fulfilling lives. The film ends by coming full circle to the understanding that it is the quality of our relationships — with friends, family and the larger community — that ultimately defines our happiness.

The film is complemented by a content-rich Web site, It provides vetted resources and opportunities to build social support networks around topics highlighted in the series, such as the importance of early attachment, how to heal strained or damaged relationships, PTSD, stress, depression, grief, resilience and our pursuit of happiness.

The Web site is the centerpiece of a nationwide outreach campaign, extending the reach of the project beyond the broadcast. The effort provides people with valuable information, offers access to mechanisms for social support and helps mitigate the stigma attached to mental illness.

Source: Cause & Affect

New PBS Documentary: Can Americans Be Happier?

Psych Central News Editor

APA Reference
News Editor, P. (2018). New PBS Documentary: Can Americans Be Happier?. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 20, 2019, from
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Last updated: 8 Aug 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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