Does happiness come from our environment?

Although some consider it the beginning of the decline of film director M. Night Shyamalan, who enjoyed great success with The Sixth Sense, his movie The Village raises a number of interesting dilemmas about the nature of good and evil: are these virtues a direct result of the environment? Is society primarily responsible for the behavior (good or bad) of its citizens?

Martin Seligman raised a similar question in 2002, while interviewing a potential student for his master’s program. In her cover letter, the student said she wanted to demonstrate that the real problem with education would not be fixed by simply improving the quality of the teachers or learning environment. Instead of being politically correct, she argued that the core issue in cases of scholastic failure (or low performance in general) stemmed from the character of the student, far more than their environment or the amount of resources they could access to finance it.

As Seligman himself said, this theory was completely against the grain, since the prevailing belief was that the most important factors were the curriculum and the excellence and motivation of the professors. If these were in place, without fail students would become engaged in their education. If not, it meant that they were missing one (or both) of these factors.

This view is in line with the pedagogical theories put forth by Jean Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century: children are good by nature; it is society that “corrupts” them. That led to the concept of the noble savage.

Fortunately, reality is stubborn, and common sense eventually prevails. In the movie we were discussing, the story revolves around a secluded village in the middle of a forest, whose inhabitants cannot leave because they are afraid of the creatures (“Those We Don’t Speak of”) that inhabit the thicket. Everything in the town is aimed at creating the utopian society par excellence: they live off the land, there is no money, life is egalitarian, red (the color of blood) is forbidden because it attracts the forest creatures… Yet somehow, it becomes the scene of crime, one fueled by jealousy; and that crime is committed by presumably the most innocent person: a mentally disabled young man.

Stupor. Because, as the plot unfolds, we see that everything is aimed at uprooting the evil found there. And then it appears, most unexpectedly. It is the courage of a blind girl, who risks everything by going to the city to get medicine, that somehow transcends the evil; and the generosity of the first person she runs into when leaving the forest. Both were unexpected events.

The movie ties in with the question raised by Seligman’s student: We can create the best possible system, the ideal environment for living, learning, studying, etc. But the individual is ultimately responsible for the outcome. Because after all, each individual chooses good or evil. And the free human spirit is not content with things already being decided, especially in this area.

So, could we say that happiness ultimately depends on each individual? Not exactly. Others play a fundamental role: the happier someone is, the more they want to communicate their happiness to those around them, and have those people share in it. And the worse off a person is, the more they need the companionship of someone to help them bounce back. But when all is said and done, personal freedom is at the heart of the pursuit of and affinity for happiness.