Can Watching a Movie About Happiness Make Us Happier?

The renowned observational learning theorist, Albert Bandura, observed that most of what we learn in life comes from what we observe and that this information is encoded within us for future use. Thus, it makes perfect sense that watching a movie about happiness would help us learn more about happiness and actions we might take to become happy, as we observe the positive role models in a given film.

In Positive Psychology at the Movies, we give particular attention to this topic through the lens of character strengths. Research tells us that tapping into and using our strengths is strongly connected to happiness. Thus, we discuss more than 1,000 movies that portray each of 24 universally valued character strengths and how viewers might practically build up a given strength through movies. If we then set goals and act in ways consistent with our strengths (self-concordance), this is likely to lead us to greater well-being.

This is a topic that needs further research, but the preliminary science on the topic seems to point in a positive direction that movies can improve individuals’ level of well-being. Educators know this and have been using movies for years in the classroom to the enthusiasm of their students, while therapists have been reporting multiple benefits of the use of movies with clients to build rapport, generate insights, provide examples for overcoming problems, and for building hope.

The link between happiness and movies becomes even more obvious when we view happiness as a transient state or emotion, such as the state of joy or the state of excitement or contentment. We can all think of movies that have left us feeling joyous, proud to be a human being, or elevated in spirit. Many people will cite examples such as It’s a Wonderful Life, Zorba the Greek, and Life Is Beautiful, or more recent films such as The Artist, Win Win, and The King’s Speech.

But, being a state, our happy mood passes. The idea is to expand and widen these moments of happiness. Along these lines, science guides us to reminisce about the positive (in this case, the positive aspects of the movie), to savor and relish in the positive state, and to share the positive feelings with others. When you see a movie that leads you to feel happy, what do you do with that positive emotion? Do you mindlessly leave the theater while the credits are rolling looking to be the first person in the parking lot? Do you turn to your mobile device while walking out of the theater, curious about who might have e-mailed or sent you a text message during the film?

Or do you take time to reflect on the work of art you just witnessed? Do you discuss the film with others? Do you examine the strengths and behaviors the characters in the film exhibited and how they might serve as models for you? Do you consider the ways in which the characters impacted you and what subsequent changes you might make?

Taking the time to be mindful of these questions might help you expand your happiness.

Ryan Niemiec is a psychologist and the education director of the VIA Institute on Character.

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