Happiness opens with a rat scampering along, until it is subsumed into a sea of other rats, all running in the same direction. As the rat moves into more densely populated areas, the other rats are dressed in suits and ties. The rats are revealed to all be waiting for the subway— going to “Nowhere.” Signs on the walls all the bear the word “happy” with different images behind them. The subway doors open, utterly crammed, as one rat struggles to exit and another squeezes in the entrance. The rest of the rats wait impatiently. The camera moves to the world above ground, filled with countless rats and even more ads for a variety of products—perfume, shoes, food, movies, all claiming to be the source of happiness. A single rat—presumably the one from the opening of the film—becomes the focus as he weaves his way through a crowded mall. He waits as the doors open for a black Friday sale—absolute carnage ensues. The rat leaves with a television before quickly dropping it when he spots a fancy sports car. He zooms along, happy, until he hits traffic. From there, the rat seeks many other vices to achieve ‘happiness.’
Happiness relies heavily on allegory and is meticulously detailed. The most obvious and overriding image is of course the use of personified rats, creating a literal rat race to stand for the metaphorical one. The subway signs to “nowhere” further emphasize this, meaning the rats are constantly racing towards an objective that does not exist or is unattainable. The black Friday sale, advertisements that plaster virtually every surface and the sports car that the rat drives are all symbols of the pervasiveness of consumer culture—all show the extravagance with which people spend their money in order to achieve manufactured notions of happiness. The main rat featured also falls prey to alcohol as another avenue of achieving happiness; another striking moment of commentary is when the rat receives a prescription for happiness. The moment seems to be a comment on contemporary reliance on drugs and over-diagnosis; it resonates deeply with the current opioid crisis in the United States.
Happiness serves as a dual critique. It reveals our contemporary culture’s obsession with finding happiness and the various consumerist avenues we mistakenly believe will get us there. The film suggests that these avenues are inadequate, at most providing temporary fixes. The film also points to a different issue—advertisements capitalize on this hunger for happiness to target their imagery and branding to help perpetuate unrealistic desires. The film ends with the rat at a desk job, surrounded by countless other rats in identical positions—his desk made of an actual rattrap. The ending image demonstrates how consumerist mindsets lead people to ironically sacrifice their actual happiness and get tricked into pursuing quixotic fantasies of artificial happiness. Happiness suggests that our misguided pursuit of what we think will bring us happiness in fact makes us unhappy—whether or not you succeed in the rat race, you are still a rat.