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.
Now is the perfect time to take a look at those recent award-winning movies you missed in the theater by heading to your local Redbox or video store, checking your cable On-Demand options, or adding some good films to your Netflix queue.
Editor’s Note: Interested in more ideas for experiencing positive psychology at the movies? This is the fifth year that Ryan has provided positive psychology movie awards. Check the reference list below for the full list, as well as his book on positive psychology at the movies.
We provide Amazon links for each movie. The picture links to the streaming form, while the title links to the boxed DVD. We know there are many ways to gain access to these movies, but the Amazon reviews may be helpful even so.
Positive psychology films portray the human condition which is not always pleasant and upbeat. Some positive psychology films are intentionally raw, dark, and emotionally riveting while others are lighthearted and fun. A common thread seems to be the attempt to portray the human condition and shine light on what is vulnerable, authentic, conflicted, and beautiful.
Each year, I am pleased to announce these Positive Psychology Movie Awards on PPND. What follows is my subjective analysis as a positive psychologist who enjoys watching movies from a lens of strengths. Note there is some selection bias due to the time it takes for most international films to become widely available.Award for Best Positive Psychology Film of 2013:
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
There are a host of interesting positive psychology themes that serve as teaching tools for the classroom, for the coaching/counseling session, or for self-development in this engaging movie. Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) spends his life as a photo developer going through the motions on automatic pilot, daydreaming scenarios of action he might take but inevitably does not. In his fantasy world – which the film creatively displays – he is adventurous, brave, and altruistic, but not in his real life. Following a threat to his job security, Mitty takes action and goes on a global journey representing the human quest of yearning and pursuit of life purpose. Recent research has examined three pathways by which people pursue life purpose (i.e., proactive engagement, reaction to a significant life event, and social learning) and while all pathways align with greater well-being, only the proactive pathway links with greater openness to experience and agency. Mitty finds his purpose by proactive action that is deliberate and meaningful. Mitty’s proactivity shifts him from mindless to mindful. He begins to take charge of his life.
For more about the shift from mindless to mindful, see my Psychology Today blog entry, From mindless to mindful.Award for Positive Relationships: Before Midnight
Independent filmmaker Richard Linklater’s third installment of films featuring Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) and the highs and lows of their relationship (see also Before Sunrise and Before Sunset). This “dialogue film” offers deep conversation, the sharing of honest truths and core fears, intimate connections, and experimentation with novel approaches to foster intimacy. Numerous strategies to use (and avoid) for building a positive relationship are on full display in this film (for 5 research-based examples, click here).Award for Happiness: The Great Beauty
In one of the most sophisticated movies of 2013, this Italian film offers multiple perspectives on happiness, regardless of your theoretical preference. From the lens of an aging, wealthy protagonist reflecting on his life and searching for answers, we learn about hedonia and eudaimonia, about pleasure, engagement, and meaning, and about PERMA.Award for Mindfulness: About Time:
Although marketed as a standard Hollywood film with a star-studded cast, the power of this film will sneak up on you with its undercurrent of themes around the importance of mindful attention, mindful living, and savoring experiences of those you care about.Award for Use of Signature Strengths: The Butler
Forest Whitaker portrays Cecil Gaines, a White House Butler who served for eight presidents through the civil rights movement, Vietnam, the Kennedy assassination, and other major events. Gaines’ signature strengths of prudence, humility, perspective, and self-regulation are consistent over the decades. Viewers can learn from the integrity of a man who expresses these core aspects of his identity through a wide range of obstacles.Award for Transformation: Gravity
The tagline for Alfonso Cuaron’s space adventure film is “Don’t let go.” This captures a practical theme in the film relating to astronauts holding onto a lifeline following a catastrophe in space. Ironically, the protagonist, Dr. Stone (Sandra Bullock) must do the opposite of the message of this tagline in order to survive. It is in letting go that she is able to not only face her suffering directly but also embrace a new reality. Without both of these steps – the mindful confronting and embracing – letting go would be less feasible.Award for Strengths-Spotting: Cutie and the Boxer
This documentary of two creative Japanese artists living and working together in New York City, offers the viewer an opportunity to practice the skill of spotting character strengths. One artist dips his boxing gloves in paint and expresses himself by punching his canvas repeatedly, sometimes in front of a live audience; his wife creates a series of provocative cartoons based loosely on the themes of her life experience. Themes of independence, freedom, relationship tension, and a love-hate relationship with art allow for the emergence of many character strengths.Award for Overcoming a Problem: The Croods
Animated film about a family living in the stone-age, operating purely in a fight-or-flight mode of survival, driven by fear. The father actively discourages the use of bravery and curiosity, believing that these attributes can only lead to danger. When their home/cave is destroyed, they have no choice but to turn to other strengths. The film offers a strong portrayal of exposure (the evidenced-based treatment for anxiety), the dangers of strengths underuse and overuse, and the triumph of balanced strengths deployment, championed by the daughter in the family.Misuse of Character Strengths: August: Osage County
There is much to learn from characters who deliberately use their character strengths to the detriment of others (for malevolent ends). Seemingly countless films exhibit this phenomenon. The character exhibited by Meryl Streep in this film uses her curious questioning and social intelligence to perceive vulnerabilities and attack multiple family members with poisonous words and reckless abandon. She is, what positive psychology philosopher, Blaine Fowers, would refer to as a person of “vicious character.”Award for Strengths Balance: Man of Steel
Finding the optimal expression, or golden mean, in the expression of our character strengths is a challenge we face each day. This film, acclaimed as the best Superman film since the original, displays the young Superman testing his powers and realizing he is much stronger than he thinks. Through practice and self-regulation, he is shown bringing his strengths into balance.
Honorable Mention awards
- Philomena: for acceptance
- Frozen: for the character strength of leadership
- Rush: for achievement
- The Way, Way Back: for positive role models
- The Great Gatsby: for the strength of hope
- Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2: for the strength of teamwork
- Her: for positive technology
- Broken Circle Breakdown: for the vicious circle
- Oz: The Great and Powerful: for the virtuous circle
- 12 Years a Slave: for resilience, long-term
- All is Lost: for resilience, short-term
- Side Effects: for character strengths constellation
- Blue Jasmine: for overuse and underuse of character strengths
Earlier Positive Psychology Movie Awards by Ryan Niemiec:
- The Positive Psychology Movie Awards of 2012
- The Positive Psychology Movie Awards of 2011: Character Strengths and Best Picture
- The Positive Psychology Movie Awards of 2011: Elements of Flourishing,
- The Positive Psychology Movie Awards of 2010
- The Positive Psychology Movie Awards for 2009: Countdown
- The Positive Psychology Movie Awards for 2009: Honorable Mention
Biswas-Diener, R., Kashdan, T. B., & Minhas, G. (2011). A dynamic approach to psychological strength development and intervention. Journal of Positive Psychology, 6(2), 106–118.
Fowers, B. J. (2008). From continence to virtue: Recovering goodness, character unity, and character types for positive psychology. Theory & Psychology, 18(5), 629–653. Abstract.
Giannopoulos, V. L., & Vella-Brodrick, D. A. (2011). Effects of positive interventions and orientations to happiness on subjective well-being. Journal of Positive Psychology, 6(2), 95-105. Preview.
Hill, P. L., Sumner, R., & Burrow, A. L. (2014). Understanding the pathways to purpose: Examining personality and well-being correlates across adulthood. Journal of Positive Psychology, 9(3), 227-234. Preview.
Niemiec, R. (2013). Mindfulness and Character Strengths. Cambridge, MA: Hogrefe.
Niemiec, R. M., & Wedding, D. (2013). Positive Psychology at the Movies: Using Films to Build Character Strengths and Well-Being Cambridge, MA: Hogrefe.
Niemiec, R. M. (2013). Five lesser known tips for a positive relationship. Psychology Today Blog.
Niemiec, R. M. (2013). From mindless to mindful. Psychology Today Blog.
Niemiec, R. M. (2013). Cultivate a virtuous circle. Psychology Today Blog.
VanDyke, M. M., & Anderson, V. H. (2013). Acquiring fear, learning safety, and modeling growth [A review of the motion picture The croods]. PsycCRITIQUES.