I want to travel to Pandora, the fictional planet depicted in Avatar. I saw James Cameron’s newest film that has rocked box offices since its release in December on I-MAX 3-D and have since been urging friends to run, not walk, to see this movie. The message inherent in the panoramic view is profoundly positive and especially relevant to our world today.
The film is set in the year 2154 on Pandora, a faraway moon place where the indigenous Na’vi people roam. The film’s title refers to the genetically engineered Na’vi bodies used by the film’s human characters to interact with the Na’vi. In the film, some humans are interested in mining Pandora’s reserves of a precious mineral called unobtanium. Human greed threatens the continued existence of the Na’vi and the Pandoran ecosystem. Avatars that are part-Na’vi and part-human are created to cohabit with the Na’vi in order gain their trust.
According to Hindu mythology, an avatar is the personification of a god. The more modern Urban Dictionary, defines avatars as computerized images representing a person, like the icon you create and use when playing Nintendo Wii. Avatars resemble real human form, but are digitized.
The perceived need to have Na’vi Avatars exemplifies the social psychological research on own-race bias, the tendency of humans to gravitate towards those who look like them. Research by Barbara Fredrickson and colleagues shows that positive emotions reduce own-race bias: people with higher levels of positive emotion see more similarities and fewer differences. When we open ourselves up to the wonders of the universe, we see more wonders. Then we can see ourselves as wonders. It feels good to be seen.
“I see you”
The Na’vi use “I see you!” as token of love and respect, signifying knowledge, empathy, and compassion. But being seen requires we let ourselves be seen – a conscious choice to be open and vulnerable. This relates to Carol Dweck’s research on mindset: the kids who choose harder puzzles are open to the fact that they may not be able to complete them. They take the risk anyway. They have faith in themselves (in our lingo, this is self-efficacy). The Na’vi people exemplify this faith, not only in themselves, but in the universe as well. Perhaps this mindset stems from a self-actualization and self-love that is built with self-regulation over time. Notice the emphasis on self.
But not too much emphasis. In the film, we see the hubris of some of the film’s human characters who insist it’s okay to invade and to take what belongs to the other. “To fight terror, we need terror,” says Colonel Miles Quaritch (played by Stephen Lang), the leader of the security forces. In the end, goodness prevails as Jake (played by Sam Worthington) and Augustine (played by Sigourney Weaver) build a true collaboration with the Na’vi people – not an easy task – but nonetheless a true win-win, as described by Robert Wright’s history of social evolution, Nonzero.
Your Cup is Too Full
“Your cup is too full,” says Mo’at (played by C. C. H. Pounder), a shaman who is also the mother of Neytiri (played by Zoe Saldana). Mo’at encourages her daughter to teach Jake the ways of the Na’vi people. “My cup is empty,” Jake pleads as if to suggest that he is open and willing to learn. This spirit of learning is at the heart of the movie, and also at the core of positive psychology. Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build Theory is essentially a learning theory. Positive emotions put us in spaces that allow for learning, for seeing things anew, for opening, for growing.
Positive emotions happen in social situations. The film demonstrates the power of interconnectedness. One of the most fascinating scenes shows hundreds of Na’vi people linked together physically, arm to arm, with a brilliant white light radiating between them. This same light is shown throughout the planet’s natural world, as if to suggest a oneness, a peace, and the positive evolution inherent in the interconnectedness of all beings. It is energy giving.
I hypothesize this interconnectedness requires trust. Trust comes from a willingness to be vulnerable and from faith (the Na’vi people have this). Faith comes from appreciating the wonders of the universe. The wonders of the universe come from seeing and being seen. Seeing and being seen take intention, mindfulness, risk, and yes, love.
The Message is For Us
Avatar is real-life, not just a sci-fi epic, if you’re open to seeing it that way. Ultimately, this is what positive psychology is about for me – being willing to see things in different and perhaps more positive ways. It is a mindset that can be built consciously, over time by challenging old habits of thinking, speaking, doing, and ultimately, of feeling.
Hey look, the truth is that I’m working on this process, myself. Maybe you are too? Perhaps then, we’ll co-create the brilliance of Pandora right here within the miraculous beauty of our own planet, mother Earth.
How Avatar is relevant today ~ Click here to watch Wade Davis’ TED Talk on indigenous cultures and why it’s important we save both the biosphere and ethnosphere.
Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books.
Fredrickson, B. L. (1998). What good are positive emotions?. Review of General Psychology, 2, 300-319.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.
Johnson, K. & Fredrickson, B. (2005). We all look the same to me: Positive emotions eliminate the own-race bias in face recognition. Psychological Science, 16(11) 875-881.
Wright, R. (2000). Nonzero: The logic of human destiny. New York: Vintage Press.
Theme song, “I See You”
The images are free downloads from avatarmovie.com except for the Avatar face of Louis himself, which was done by Sherri Grice