Filmmaker Peggy Callahan and her colleague Dr. Elissa Epel are on a mission to spread the infectious laughter and wisdom of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
If you watched Lion’s Roar and Tibet House US’s Dalai Lama Global Vision Summit this year, you got to see exclusive preview clips from the new documentary, Mission: Joy: Finding Happiness in Troubled Times, which centers on the friendship between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu (or “Arch,” as his friends call him), who died on Sunday, December 26, 2021.
Today, we share an October conversation with the film’s producer and co-director, Peggy Callahan, and her colleague Dr. Elissa Epel, who’s helped design a complementary “citizen science project” called The Big Joy Project. They and their projects help point the way to more joy in our everyday lives.
(This conversation has been edited for text. Listen to the whole segment on The Lion’s Roar Podcast.)
It has to be said about this film: it really is a joyous delight, so filled with laughter, while also quite serious about the very importance of joy and delight. How did it come to be, Peggy?
Peggy Callahan: Well, the two mischievous brothers, as His Holiness and the Archbishop call themselves, decided that they were going to do a book together with Doug Abrams called The Book of Joy. And so when they got ready to have those dialogues, Doug called me and asked if I wanted to produce and direct the dialogues at the Dalai Lama’s home and it was like, “Uh, yeah, I think I want to spend a week with them. That sounds good to me!” So we went and we shot it. Producers and directors usually don’t roll a second of video unless they have the rights to use it, but we didn’t have time to set all of that up. [Recording it] for the book was the priority. And then if something happened later on, great.
And about two years later, I got the rights to be able to produce an interactive film and it went from there. And all I can say is, as much fun as you had watching it and cracking up with these men, it was that way the whole time. We had to keep telling people who were in the room, please don’t snort and laugh. We’re going to hear it. They couldn’t help themselves.
The holy men only told me one thing when working on these projects: get this message to as many people as possible, around the world, period.
We also all cried, and how can you not when you hear these men’s stories? One of the big points of the film is that our differences are never greater than our common humanity. And I think that is woven throughout.
The film does include some very rare archival footage.
Peggy Callahan: Right. Our great co-director, Louie Psihoyos, looked at me one day and said, “I wonder if the Dalai Lama’s team have some kind of wooden box or something with old film in it, like stuff we all put in the attic.” I kind of rolled my eyes like, “Oh yeah, the Dalai Lama’s team has that. Right.” But they did! So the video that you see of His Holiness hiking in regular clothes and in Western clothes up in the mountains and stuff, that all came out of this dusty wooden box somewhere where they’d just found old video.
So that video really hadn’t been seen by anyone?
Peggy Callahan: Well, the people who took it, maybe.
The animation was very striking as well.
Peggy Callahan: Two different people volunteered to oversee it. One of them, Darla Anderson, has won two Academy Awards for Coco and Toy Story 3. And then Damien [de Froberville] also worked on it. He’s run huge studios all around the world. We had to do animation because the Dalai Lama’s early life is very well-documented, but there is not a photograph of Arch before the age of nineteen. So, if we were going to tell equal stories, we had to go to animation. What I always think is that documentaries are really an act of unreasonable love by everyone involved. This time maybe the love was reasonable. But there was a whole bunch of luck.
This idea of love and joy is tied up in a mission, reflected in the film’s title and also in this idea of a global citizen science project.
Peggy Callahan: It’s called “The Big Joy Project,” and sometimes we include the term, “citizen science project.” I’d thought that citizen science, forgive me, was English people counting birds and butterflies. I’d forgotten about, like, the Human Genome Project and stuff like that. It sounded so interesting and amazing, a way to help people have more agency over their joy. I wrote to Alyssa and asked, what do you think about this? In twenty-four hours she wrote back with a whole plan about how we could do it.
So, Dr. Epel, how did this plan come to you? How did you see it manifesting and tying in with the work of the film?
Dr. Elissa Epel: When I got the mail from Peggy, she didn’t realize it, but this had been a big plan in my mind, and many researchers’ minds, for decades. So it’s a dream to be able to test and apply the science of joy and wellbeing on a large scale, and involving people so that it’s more empowering and teaching them about the science, and how to change their daily experience. I try to be good at saying no to new projects, but this was an immediate yes.
We’ll see where it goes, but we have so much hope that we can create a viral transmission of joy, just like we’ve seen with social media. There’s the viral transmission of anger and distress, but we also know that that positive emotion can go viral if we give it the right circumstance.
How does one participate?
Peggy Callahan: If you go to mission.joy.org/bigjoy you’ll get straight to it. It’s a seven-day path. You can also sign up for a screening or send a message to one of the holy men there.
What happens in those seven days?
Dr. Elissa Epel: We made it really easy. We know how busy people are and we want everyone who is interested to join in. So it takes just a few minutes each day for seven days. You’ll be presented with an opportunity to try something out in your own life that we already know from research creates immediate positive emotion, positive affect. We are wanting to see how this translates out in the real world: on a large scale, can we increase positive affect with this light touch?
When you start with a tiny micro-practice, you’re rewarded. And especially if you’re interacting with someone else, if it’s a social act, then you’ve created contagious hope.
The suggestion is, try this in your world, in your own ecosystem. Does that positive affect last till the evening? Does it build across the week? And what else has changed in your life and your beliefs and your feelings? So we have a lot of science packed into a lot of [easily answerable] questions.
Peggy Callahan: We ask people to watch a video and talk about that experience. There’s audio of laughter, beginning with the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, because you have to laugh when those guys laugh. You can count eight gratitudes — because the science shows that it’s eight, once a week. Don’t do fifteen, don’t do three; it’s eight! There are seven things that are quite easy to do, but the science does tell us that they are going to make you feel better.
And in the long run, because it’s citizen science, scientists around the world will be able to understand more about joy, how sex or age or culture impacts what works for each of us in terms of growing more joy in our lives.
Dr. Elissa Epel: It’s really important, too, to figure out which methods resonate with you, because that’s what you’re going to do again and again. And so at the end of the week, we actually show people a graph and say, this is how much your stress and your negative emotions went down and your positive emotions went up for each practice. And so they can immediately see: this one is a really good fit for me. And then of course the suggestion is try it tomorrow. Try it for the next three days. And what we know about affect is, it builds on itself. It’s a positive feedback loop. So there’s this wonderful way that when you start with a tiny micro-practice, you’re rewarded. And especially if you’re interacting with someone else, if it’s a social act, then you’ve created contagious hope or a positive affect and, then, you are feeling better.
The reason why Peggy and her team are putting so much into this is for that impact, for creating that positive contagion, which we think, we hope, can [be adopted by] as many countries as possible.
How are you finding peoples’ reactions to all your work?
Peggy Callahan: We were just part of COP26. The people there were getting it; saying, “joy is a clean energy that can fuel everything else we’re doing.”
Our world is hurting. A lot of us are really struggling. You can tell: I feel like a zealot. I want everyone in the world to know about this. And by the way, the holy men only told me one thing when working on these projects: get this message to as many people as possible, around the world, period.
Dr. Elissa Epel: That’s so beautiful and I’m so glad you brought up clean energy. It is something that we have been thinking a lot about in the climate resilience area, because of the high intensity and pervasiveness of burnout and hopelessness. And so what happens when you can turn your energy into purpose, meaning, impact — but really, also, the feeling of collective efficacy, that we’re doing this together — is that the energy turns into regenerative energy.
And that’s what we’re measuring in this study: did you feel your activities were worthwhile? How much have you been feeling satisfied with your life, that it has meaning and purpose? And while we’re calling this the Big Joy Project, we all know of the dialectic of joy and pain and suffering. That is the reality that we’re all facing. We have it in our personal lives and we now have it communally in the global crises that we face. I’m just so glad to be sharing this work with the Lion’s Roar community, because it is, I would say, just a beautiful manifestation of the four noble truths.
And there will always be dukkha and personal drama and things we can’t control, but now we have it at a global scale. So that brings us the importance of realizing when we cannot control circumstances. We can only control how we approach them; and so what relief there is that we can laugh right now, or that we can send someone a message of appreciation right now. Those are things that cut into stress. They promote stress resilience, and for our listeners here, I mean, we’re really talking about Buddhism’s four immeasurables: kindness, compassion, joy, equanimity. There will be no surprises in our seven-day joy program for people who are practicing Buddhism and reminding themselves of these values, but to have them so concrete, and to be able to share them with a click, is one way of bringing it to people who don’t think this way.
Joy is not about avoiding suffering, which is inevitable. It’s how we deal with the suffering in front of us and the adversity and how we work through that. And when we focus our attention on what really matters in life, these joy practices work to relieve our personal suffering and they also work outside of ourselves.
Peggy Callahan: In my grownup life, I’m a human rights activist. We fight modern-day slavery. One of the things that Arch has always said is that when you’re out trying to make change in the world, you have to do it with joy. Because you need people to join you and help, and no one is going to want to join if you don’t have any joy in the process. And I think that’s true. And I suspect a lot of people in your community are people who look to make the world better, asking: how can I contribute? How can I do my part in a way that brings compassion and love and not more discomfort and pain?
You know, both of those men have been to hell and back several times. If they can find joy, isn’t that an invitation to all of us to know that we can too?