Finding happiness at the movies

Finding happiness at the movies

Can going to the movies make you a better person?

by Jeffrey Siegel from Positive Psychology News Daily

Can going to the movies make you a better person? It depends on the type of positive emotions the film elicits.

At last week’s 2nd World Congress for Positive Psychology, I was captivated (as was most of the audience) with Lindsay Doran’s presentation on “Hollywood and Happiness.” She began by saying that after thirty years in the industry, she thought she knew everything there was to know about movies. That was until she met Martin Seligman a couple years back and was enlightened about the science of positive psychology. She said Seligman’s PERMA theory of well-being (Positive Emotions, Engagement (or flow), Relationships, Meaning (and purpose), & Accomplishments) gave her a new framework for looking at how filmmakers craft successful stories. She remarked that both Hollywood and positive psychology research have something to gain by sharing insights about the multifaceted nature of happiness.

Viewing Accomplishment in the Movies

Lindsay Doran focused on the way in which Accomplishment, the ‘A’ of PERMA theory, can make filmgoers open their hearts with empathy or feel limp and unmoved. Drawing upon examples from critically acclaimed motion pictures, she pointed out that people only care about the accomplishments if they are shared with others. People are not moved by the prize-winning acts or triumphant feats themselves, but they are moved when they see triumphs shared with confidants.

For example in the movie Karate Kid, the fatherless teenager Daniel takes up martial arts to protect himself from bullying. Under the guidance of karate master Mr. Miyagi, Daniel competes against the odds to fight in the championship match at the All Valley Karate Tournament. (You can watch the final fight scene here.) After being repeatedly beaten down, Daniel throws one final kick that wins him the biggest victory in his life. As the audience cheers and hoists him up in celebration, Daniel shouts out. “Mr. Miyagi, we did it. We did it!”

What’s important is that Daniel views his accomplishment not as an individual success, but as a shared victory. Because he includes others in his triumph, the moviegoer can identify with the uplifting experience. Moreover, when the film cuts to Mr. Miyagi looking on from the sideline with a true Duchenne smile and the heartfelt pride of a loving teacher, it’s hard not to feel elevated emotions gush forth. Our relationships make our accomplishments that much sweeter. In many cases, the relationship is what makes the accomplishment possible at all.

Other Kinds of Accomplishment

Those unfamiliar with the Karate Kid have probably seen the archetypical underdog story, Rocky. Although it follows the same theme of an insignificant person overcoming overwhelming odds, Rocky is an uncommon underdog tale in that the protagonist doesn’t win the final fight. Rocky’s accomplishment is never realized. (The final scene can be viewed here.) In many ways Rocky teaches us an important lesson about life: we don’t always get what we want. Yet, despite his loss, Rocky is able to gain the respect and admiration of the audience as well as get the girl of his dreams, thus revealing something significant about human nature. An accomplishment we value greatly is the ability to endure loss. There’s no question that resilience is one of the most inspiring human qualities…

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