When I watch Forrest Gump, I feel connected to eras I never saw in person. I understand a bit more about my country, and the people and events that shaped it. I ponder the ways that fate and free will design our lives. Forrest Gump is an affirming and expanding film, and it lifts me up every time I watch it. It also makes me think of my little brother and all the delicious microwave popcorn we ate while we were outside our parents’ purview.
Forrest Gump as a Positive Intervention
My brother and I were ostensibly watched Forrest Gump and his feather move through life over and over again for the sake of entertainment, and perhaps for the comfort of repetition. In retrospect, I think that we got much more out of it. Forrest taught our young minds about wisdom, perspective, and love with its simple refrains like “life is like a box of chocolates– you never know what you’re gonna get,” and “I’m not a smart man, but I do know what love is.” We still trade lines from the movie these many years later, and they enable us to make sense of the events and characters in our own lives. I see now that Forrest Gump was a positive intervention that we could pop in the VCR anytime.
A Guide to Movies as Positive Interventions
Ryan Niemiec and Danny Wedding’s updated edition of Positive Psychology at the Movies 2: Using Films to Build Character Strengths and Well-Being (the sequel?) is an exploration of the ways that movies can illuminate and portray the principles of positive psychology, especially character strengths. Though any movie can be viewed from a strengths perspective, there are some, like Forrest Gump, that are rich with the lessons of positive psychology.Niemiec and Wedding define a positive psychology movie as one that portrays a character using at least one of the VIA strengths, shows the character meeting adversity with that strength and using that strength to overcome said adversity, and has “a tone or mood (i.e., ‘light’ or ‘dark’) in the film that is uplifting or that speaks deeply to the human condition” (page 15). Niemiec and Wedding encourage the reader to watch films with an eye on strengths and well-being. They ask us to watch mindfully instead of passively, and to take lessons from the films and apply them to our own lives. They write of cinematic elevation and cinematic admiration and the “tingling and warming sensations of inspiration” (page 18).
The bulk of Positive Psychology at the Movies 2 is devoted to the study of character strengths. There is a short section devoted to each of the 24 VIA character strengths. These sections are loosely clustered by virtue. Each section contains suggestions of relevant films that particularly illustrate the highlighted strength. Niemiec and Wedding also give practical applications for mining the most character strength knowledge from a film and ways to bring that learning into daily life. There is a great deal of information here.
Trying Out Mindful WatchingMy top VIA strength is love of learning, and I took the authors’ suggestion to watch Akeelah and the Bee with strengths goggles on. Niemiec and Wedding see Akeelah as an exemplar of the strength of love of learning. The movie is the story of an 11 year-old girl from inner-city Los Angeles who works her way through the National Spelling Bee circuit, making friends and learning life lessons along her journey. You know this kind of movie: It’s the kind that you end up watching on demand on a quiet Sunday night that makes you cry and research the history of spelling bees and Lawrence Fishburne. I loved it. I have to tendency to try to multi-task when watching movies at home, and I found that watching with my strengths goggles on kept me more engaged in Akeelah’s story.
Niemiec and Wedding describe cinematic strengths-spotting as an exercise in observational learning that can later serve as a model for behavior (page 16). I found that Akeelah showed me new and nuanced ways to use my own signature strength and to bring it out in others.
Movies as a Gateway to PERMA
The most intriguing part of Niemiec and Wedding’s 470-page book is the final bit, which was added for the second edition. Section III focuses on the ways in which movies can support Martin Seligman’s PERMA model of human flourishing. They provide examples of experiencing at the movies each element of PERMA: positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement/accomplishment.
Mindfulness at the Movies
Niemiec and Wedding also explore portrayals of mindfulness and resilience in movies. While resilience is a common theme in cinema, mindfulness at the movies is a new idea to me. The authors detail seven layers of mindfulness involved in movie-watching (page 362). They also show that mindfulness is a way to enhance the experience of noticing character strengths and PERMA in a film.In the discussion of mindfulness, they reference another of my favorite films, American Beauty, and describe the protagonist’s mid-life crisis as an awakening into a new life of mindfulness and positive relationships.
The appendices that follow contain long and rich lists of movies and relevant positive psychology interventions. The learning possibilities are endless.
Looking Ahead to the Holiday SeasonThe holiday season is a great time to see the newest films. I am looking forward to catching Twelve Years a Slave: Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, Catching Fire (The Second Book of the Hunger Games), and August: Osage County. I am going to see these movies for my own entertainment and cultural literacy, and I will take my metaphorical strengths goggles to the theater with me. I’ll probably also watch my favorite Christmas movie, Elf, with fresh eyes. If Buddy the Elf isn’t an exemplar of zest and enthusiasm and forgiveness, then I don’t know who is.
Watching movies with from a strengths perspective is fun. It is an easy and educational way of doing something that already gives so many of us pleasure. Niemiec and Wedding know their movies. They show the reader how to add another layer to the viewing experience and come out stronger for it.
Niemiec, R. & Wedding, D. (2013). Positive Psychology at the Movies: Using Films to Build Character Strengths and Well-Being. Hogrefe Publishing.
Niemiec, R. (2008). The Sacred: Spirituality and Movies. Positive Psychology News.
For the last 4 years, Ryan Niemiec has written at least one article about movies of the year around the time of the Oscar awards. You can find Ryan’s views on the award winning movies of 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012 among his PPND articles here.