Ryan Niemiec, Psy.D., is a licensed psychologist, coach, and Education Director of the VIA Institute on Character. He's an international presenter on character strengths, mindfulness, and positive psychology. Ryan is author of Mindfulness and Character Strengths and co-author of Positive Psychology at the Movies and Movies And Mental Illness.
Articles by Ryan are here.
Is there any substance and meaning behind the choice of who wins an Academy Award? In an analysis of 1,132 films, Simonton found that the Oscars do matter; they provide meaningful information about creativity and achievement in the cinema and are more representative of these positive phenomena than any other awards platform.
What Makes a Positive Psychology Film?
What about the best positive psychology films? In general, a positive psychology film depicts:
- A balanced portrayal of one or more character strengths
- Obstacles, struggle, or conflict the character faces in reaching or maximizing the strength (this may be metaphorical)
- Characters overcoming obstacles, thus expressing, building, or maintaining the strength
- A tone or mood that is inspiring or uplifting
The best positive psychology films include all four of these criteria and engender the subjective experience of cinematic elevation, a term coined by Danny Wedding and me based on Jonathan Haidt’s definition of elevation (an emotion resulting from witnessing acts of moral beauty, accompanied by physical sensations of warmth and tingling, and a motivation to move toward higher moral ends). Cinematic elevation refers to the common movie-going experience in which the viewer is inspired by the moral goodness seen in a character, feels physical sensations of tingling skin and warmth in the midsection, and has a subsequent increased desire to act in virtuous ways. Viewing movies through a positive psychology lens is often transformative.
If the field of positive psychology were to give Academy Awards for the best films of 2009, what would be the most deserving winners representing various positive psychology phenomena? Here are the films just behind the top ten in my personal award list for positive psychology movies. These aren’t in any particular rank order, but for the top films to appear on Sunday morning, I’ll arrange them from 10 to 1.
Note: Unless otherwise noted, the movie images are links to DVDs available from Amazon.com in case you want to see them quickly.
And the Winners Are…
Oscar for Happiness: Shrink
Kevin Spacey plays a psychologist who writes books about happiness but has lost the wisdom of his words with the loss of his wife, propelling him into self-loathing, alexithymia, and drug abuse. In order to recover joy, he must learn to find a better balance between pleasure, engagement, and meaning.
Oscar for Mindfulness: Taking Chance
Lt. Col. Michael Strobl, stuck in mindlessness and avoidance, faces a new challenge of escorting the body of a fallen soldier across the country to the soldier’s family. This situation propels Strobl to experience profound levels of meaning, treat his moment-to-moment experience as sacred, and stay open and accepting of his experiences and emotions along the journey.
Oscar for Work as a Calling: The Hurt Locker: Staff Sgt. William James, a bomb squad technician, has spent his career strolling directly into dangerous situations. He embraces his terrifying job with pleasure, passion, artistry, and zest. Peterson, Park, Hall, and Seligman have shown that zest highly correlates with work as a calling. One gets the feeling that he was “meant” to do this work, and the work was meant to have him.
Oscar on the Misuse of a Character Strength: Inglourious Basterds: Col. Hans Landa is a character of enormous creativity and social intelligence in his job as a French officer who specializes in hunting down escaped Jews during WWII. The viewer is left thinking about how many people he could help if he were to use these character strengths for the good, but alas, he is fully misguided about what is good, becoming what Fowers calls a vicious character. Indeed, it is Landa’s misuse of creativity and social intelligence that leads to his downfall.
Oscar on the Under-Use of a Character Strength: Up in the Air
George Clooney’s character is a clever businessman spending his time flying from city to city firing people. He has become so entrenched in detailed routines and being away from meaningful relationships that he has lost touch with the virtues of humanity and transcendence, and the character strengths they entail.
Oscar on the Overuse of a Character Strength: The Invention of Lying: In a world where people can only tell the truth, we see a clear portrayal of the deficits and failures of overusing a character strength, in this case honesty. Where an overuse of one character strength exists, there is often an under-use of other strengths; in this case, the society under-uses social intelligence, prudence, and self-regulation.
Oscar for Meaning-Making: The Lovely Bones: After a zestful adolescent girl is murdered, she goes to a luminal, in-between place in which she fails to let go and struggles in vain to help her family cope with the loss. As Frankl describes, where there is struggle and suffering, there is an opportunity for meaning. The viewer (and the family) is given space to make meaning of what happens after death, as director Peter Jackson intersperses beautiful images of landscapes and seasonal changes among plot developments.
Oscar for Resilience: Precious: It would be impossible to give this award to any other film given the extent of adversity faced by Precious, a 16-year-old who repeatedly “bounces back” from challenges ranging from the trials of day-to-day living as an obese, impoverished African-American adolescent to misfortune, neglect, abuse, and trauma.
Oscar for Positive Emotions: New York, I Love You: With the advantage of using several vignettes and character interactions, most of the major positive emotions listed by Barbara Fredrickson are portrayed in a genuine way. This film is the follow-up to the superior Paris, I Love You(2006).
Oscar for Positive Parenting: It’s Complicated
While not a major theme in the film, the frequent scenes of sitting children down to share difficult news, eating together at the dinner table, mutually supporting one another, and having fun and laughing together all denote good habits of healthy parenting.
Come back on Sunday for the countdown to the top Positive Psychology movie for 2009.
Fowers, B. J. (2008). From continence to virtue: Recovering goodness, character unity, and character types for positive psychology. Theory and Psychology, 18(5), 629-653.
Frankl, V. (1959). Man’s search for meaning. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.
Haidt, J. (2003). Elevation and the positive psychology of morality. In C. L. Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.), Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived (pp. 275-289). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Niemiec, R. M. (2007, September 19). What is a positive psychology film? [Review of the motion picture The pursuit of happyness]. PsycCRITIQUES – Contemporary Psychology: APA Review of Books, 52 (No. 38). Article 18. Retrieved December 15, 2007.
Niemiec, R. M., & Wedding, D. (2008). Positive psychology at the movies: Using films to build virtues and character strengths. Gottingen, Germany: Hogrefe.
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Peterson, C., Park, N., Hall, N., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2009). Zest and work. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 30, 161-172.
Simonton, D. K. (2004). Film awards as indicators of cinematic creativity and achievement: A quantitative comparison of the Oscars and six alternatives. Creativity Research Journal, 16(2 & 3), 163-172.
Wedding, D., Boyd, M. A., & Niemiec, R. M. (2010). Movies And Mental Illness: Using Films To Understand Psychopathology. Cambridge, MA: Hogrefe.
Bauer 88B Movie Camera courtesy of John Kratz