Home All The Positive Psychology Movie Awards of 2011: Character Strengths and Best Picture

The Positive Psychology Movie Awards of 2011: Character Strengths and Best Picture

written by Ryan Niemiec 24 February 2012

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 many books including Character Strengths Interventions and Mindfulness and Character Strengths and co-author of The Power of Character Strengths and Positive Psychology at the Movies. Longer bio. Articles by Ryan are here.

Editor’s note: This the third year that Ryan Niemiec has prepared us for the Oscar award evening by nominating movies for positive psychology awards.

As co-author of Positive Psychology at the Movies and scientist at the VIA Institute, Ryan is perfectly placed to suggest the positive psychology awards for the movies of 2011.

This is part 2 of the 2011 Oscars. For the rest of the story, see part 1 on Elements of Flourishing.

If you are looking for ideas of movies to watch, we recommend his earlier articles as well: Positive Psychology Movie Awards of 2010, Positive Psychology Movie Awards Countdown (2009), and Positive Psychology Movie Awards – Honorable Mention (2009).

As I mentioned yesterday, positive psychology movies are not only the lighthearted films that inspire and elevate us but also the movies that teach us something about the human condition, help us face our suffering, and shine a light on pain and tragedy. In this article, you’ll find movies that also shine a light on character strengths — authenticity, teamwork, zest, paragons, having too much, having constellations of strengths, followed by my nomination for Best Picture of 2011.

[Disclaimer: This selection includes some but not all of the best films of the year. Note that access to certain independent and international films is limited in the United States.]

Oscar for Teamwork: The Way Back

In this Australian film, several men escape the gulags (Russian concentration camps) and must walk 4,000 miles to freedom. In order to survive, each brings forth unique strengths. One man brings a lighthearted approach with humor and jokes, another displays leadership in organizing and directed the group forward, and others bring forth creativity, bravery, and kindness. Each unique contribution pushes the team forward and adds to the team’s overall perseverance.

Oscar for Authenticity/Integrity: The Descendants

While there are many important themes in this film, none are more relevant than the moral decision to do what is right. George Clooney’s character reigns supreme as he chooses the path of integrity, despite being surrounded by self-serving people who lack authenticity.

Oscar for Zest: The Artist

This clever tribute to the era of silent films is also a tribute to the character strength of zest. This film can be viewed as the rise, fall, and return of the signature strength of zest. The protagonist, an actor in silent films, displays exquisite energy, large smiles, engaging body language, and vibrant enthusiasm, that is, until the “talkies” (films with dialogue) appear. He then loses his zest and his sense of work as a calling, until he takes action to use this signature strength in a new way.

Oscar for Strengths Overuse: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

This emotional and touching story about a young boy’s journey following the loss of his father in the 9/11 attacks is ultimately about connection and disconnection. The father’s poignant life message to his son of “nonstop looking” turns into a poignant overuse of perseverance, becoming obsessiveness.

Oscar for Strengths Paragon: Midnight in Paris

A useful intervention for working with strengths is to identify role models or paragons who display the character strength in an exemplary way. The father of “observational learning,” Albert Bandura, noted that most of what humans learn is through observation. Keeping that in mind, Owen Wilson’s role is a marvelous display of the appreciation of beauty/excellence strength. He marvels on every Paris street corner and uses the strength to overcome adversity.

Oscar for Strengths Constellation: Cedar Rapids

The awkward protagonist displays a constellation of several strengths – he is high in honesty, prudence, and fairness. When he behaves in violation of these signature strengths by paying someone off in order to receive an award, he feels awful and disconnected from himself. But, with the support of new friends, he enables his bravery and perspective to return to his constellation of signature strengths.

Oscar for Best Positive Psychology Film: Win Win

A troubled adolescent meets a sketchy, struggling lawyer, and the two learn a number of life lessons to better themselves. This film is part morality tale (i.e., doing the right thing), part character redemption, and part portrayal of the use of character strengths to face adversity.

All dimensions of well-being (i.e., Seligman’s PERMA conceptualization) can be readily spotted in the film and indeed, are recipes for the ways the characters flourish.

Ultimately, the movie-going experience is subjective and personal, uniquely touching each viewer, and eliciting a variety of reactions. What films had the most impact on you last year? What films tapped into your emotions and strengths and left you with a deeper sense of meaning? Please share.



Bandura, A. (1997). Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. Worth Publishers.

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.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press.

Oscar for Snow White and the 7 Dwarves at the Walt Disney museum courtesy of Loren Javier

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neal 24 February 2012 - 12:14 pm

I think The Artist is a great example of bravery. Who would have the guts to make a silent movie in this day and age? It is a testament to the executive producers and studio. The world of art in general would be so much richer if more people acted on their bravery to put out the artistic expression that is most genuine and bold for them.

Sue P. 24 February 2012 - 2:55 pm

Thanks so much, Ryan for your very insightful comments. They have inspired me
to see more of these films with these character strengths in mind. My favorite so far was The Descendants. George Clooney was wonderful and depicted integrity at it’s best.

Barbara Dudley 24 February 2012 - 7:30 pm

Thank you so much for clarifying what I was feeling about; “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”…I left the film feeling very uneasy w/ the complexity of his behavior and this overshadowing everything else…Much like obsession!
Great comments on the others and such wonderful representations of strengths use/ underuse/overuse and general awareness…Great stuff!

Maria 25 February 2012 - 6:08 am

Ryan, greetings from Singapore! I have seen some of the movies (The Descendants) and totally agree with you Ryan.

I would add to your list 50:50 – an heart warming/heart breaking story about dealing with cancer. A beautiful illustration how courage, humour and hope and mere humanity.

I hope all is well with you.

Warmest regards

Suzanne P 25 February 2012 - 9:42 am

I really liked Win Win….I could see where that could “win” many of these positive psychology awards. Bridesmaids was another favorite for the value of friendship. I work with children as a child psychologist – what are the best positive psychology movies for kids?

Ryan Niemiec 25 February 2012 - 11:17 am

Thanks everybody….great comments. Neal, very true in regard to the bravery displayed by the producer of The Artist; Harvey Weinstein was quoted on Piers Morgan yesterday noting this was the biggest risk he’s ever taken but that he solidly knew from the onset that he was making the right decision. Weinstein made a shift in his career 20 years ago to make movies of substance and meaning rather than simply to make money (although he still makes those too).

Maria, I agree on 50-50…it made my honorable mention list for last year. It’s good portrayal of philial love/friendship.

Yukun Zhao 25 February 2012 - 11:25 am

great piece! A good guide for me to catch them. 🙂

Ryan Niemiec 25 February 2012 - 11:30 am

Suzanne P, that’s a pretty loaded question, but a good one, as a full book could be written on the topic. In part it depends on who the audience is – practitioners working with kids, children themselves, adolescents, or families.

For mature youth/adolescents, I think the recent version of Alice in Wonderland cannot be beaten in terms of a young girl struggling to find herself (i.e., her muchness) and develops curiosity, courage, etc. to do so. For young kids and teachers, especially those in inner cities, I highly recommend Mad Hot Ballroom. In terms of animations for kids to watch, I’m partial to Finding Nemo (independence, survival), The Incredibles (each family member works together as a team, using their own talents/strengths), Wall-E (love), Up (savoring, friendship), and Ratatouille (creativity), among others.

Also, there’s a good listing of 20 or so films in this book by cognitive therapy gurus, Friedberg et al.(2009) – Cognitive therapy techniques for children and adolescents.

Link added by editor: Clinical Practice of Cognitive Therapy with Children and Adolescents: The Nuts and Bolts

Barbara Dudley 25 February 2012 - 12:44 pm

Ditto on 50/50…Loved it!

Mike L. 28 February 2012 - 4:49 pm

Superb take on The Descendants!! I really enjoyed your article! They could have really improved that film if only they would have gotten someone (less high on themself) than George Clooney to play that role.


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