When you queue up a movie at the end of the day, you may feel a twinge of guilt: You really should be reading another bedtime story to your child, or catching up on work emails. At the very least, you should be folding laundry or doing something that feels productive while you are watching.

If you feel this way, then you may be happy to know that watching a movie can actually have unexpected benefits: According to psychologists, movies may help us grow our strengths and become better people. 

Cinematherapy—or using movies as an adjunct to psychotherapy—has been around for many years. It is used as a treatment for mental health struggles, as a means of encouraging reflection or (for example) boosting empathy. If you have ever felt that sense that anything is possible after watching a movie, you know that movies can be powerful vehicles for inspiration.

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But how do movies inspire us, and what can we do to get the most out of them? Psychologists have been exploring these questions, and their insights could be helpful the next time you curl up on the couch for movie night.

How movies move us

In a 2020 paper, psychologist Ryan M. Niemiec investigates how therapists can use movies to help us develop what is best in ourselves: “character strengths” like creativity, curiosity, kindness, hope, prudence, bravery, persistence, and forgiveness.

In cinematherapy, he explains, a therapist recommends a movie that addresses a topic the client is working on. The therapist and the client watch the movie, sometimes together, and discuss how the movie applies to the client’s life. “At best, cinematherapy can be a major catalyst for change in psychotherapy; at the very least, it is a valuable tool and useful adjunct to treatment,” writes Niemiec.

To specifically address character strengths with cinematherapy, the therapist chooses movies that portray one or more character strengths.

How does seeing character strengths in film help us grow and improve? There are two phenomena at play here, Niemiec explains: elevation and admiration.

The experience of elevation was first described by psychologist Jonathan Haidt as the warm, uplifting feeling a person gets when they see moral excellence—unexpected acts of goodness, kindness, courage, or compassion. A person might also feel chills, a sense of warm tingling in the chest, and a sense of admiration or affection for the person who is performing the act of moral beauty. Feeling elevation promotes behavior that benefits others, like charitable donations and volunteering.

Niemiec suggests that the same experience occurs when we see moral excellence in movies.

While elevation is our reaction to the portrayal of moral excellence, admiration is our reaction to other forms of excellence, like watching an Olympic athlete in action or reading the biography of a visionary inventor. In everyday life, admiration is what you feel when you see moving displays of skills, talents, or achievements, and it is an emotion that motivates self-improvement. When we feel it while watching movies, we can experience similar sensations of chills and energy in the body, and be “motivated to improve oneself or copy the model,” the paper continues.

When we observe a character using a strength, Niemiec explains, it inspires a range of feelings and a sense of empathy with and connection to the character. This can lead us to take positive action in our own lives.

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Think about how this works offscreen—for example, in a mentor-mentee relationship you have been part of. We feel connected to the people we admire and want to emulate them.

Niemiec gives examples of actions people have taken after feeling that deep connection to a character, based on his memories of leading movie discussion groups: One person reconnected with an estranged son after witnessing forgiveness in A Better Life. Another did acts of kindness after watching Amelie. People became super productive at work (after Inception), faced social anxiety and attended events they would have avoided (after Batman Begins), and became vegetarian (after All Is Quiet on the Western Front)—inspired by strengths like perseverance, bravery, and self-regulation.

How to get inspired by film

Niemiec’s work looks at how therapists can help patients leverage movies to grow their character strengths. But we can use techniques from cinematherapy on our own, too.

As psychotherapist Birgit Wolzs says: “Outside the therapist’s office, cinematherapy can also help you to feel better, to learn more about yourself, and to learn new ways to grow and heal.” Here are some tips.

1. Watch a movie reflectively. Wolzs and Niemiec both suggest similar guidelines for using movies as a self-improvement tool:

  • First, choose a movie that emphasizes one of your character strengths. Niemiec offers suggestions here.
  • Next, before you start the movie, journal about the strength you’ve chosen: When have you used it recently?
  • Watch the movie, and be present to what is stirring inside you. While you are watching the movie, think about the following questions: What do you feel now? What character strengths are bubbling up in you? Pay close attention to what you are experiencing in your body and mind as you watch.
  • Afterward, journal about the parts of the movie that struck you: What were the character strengths you saw on display? Did any characters model behavior, strengths, or other capacities you’d like to emulate or grow?
  • Finally, think about how you might translate one of your observations into action in your personal life.

2. Try the Use Your Strengths exercise—with a twist. If you try Niemiec’s and Wolz’s suggestions and find yourself uninspired to take action, a practice called Use Your Strengths can offer some structure. Here, you plan out how to act on a strength like curiosity or creativity in a new way each day for a week.

3. Consider what strengths you want to grow. If caring strengths—love, kindness, social intelligence—are your focus, you may be especially moved to act by watching a movie that features moral excellence. That might include Life is Beautiful (love), Amelie (kindness), and Coal Miner’s Daughter (social intelligence).

If you’re more interested in growing perseverance, self-regulation, or prudence, you might be especially motivated by movies with moving displays of skills, talents, or achievements. That might include The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (perseverance), March of the Penguins (self-regulation), or The Shawshank Redemption (prudence).

Alternatively, you can think about an area of your life where your enthusiasm is lagging and choose a movie that might give you an emotional push to keep going. Recently, I found myself procrastinating on a project where I needed to come up with creative ideas for entertaining six year olds. So I re-watched Life Is Beautiful, which tells the story of a father who helps his young son survive life in a concentration camp by turning it into a game. I expected to experience a burst of creative energy that would help me design activities. But instead the film helped me connect with my feelings of love for my own six year old, which gave me a moment of emotional energy to design an activity she would like.

4. Choose relatable films. Also, consider choosing movies whose stories are most aligned with how you like to express your strengths. If your strength is creativity and you are a teacher, you might be inspired by movies about creative teachers, like Mona Lisa Smile and Dead Poets Society.

Finally, choose a movie you are excited to watch. It may seem self-evident, but if you have to motivate yourself to even watch the movie, you probably won’t get very far in using your strengths.

On your next movie night, instead of making the latest blockbuster your default choice, think first about what character strengths you find especially inspiring or would like to build in yourself. Try choosing from this list before you pop the popcorn—and you might be in for much more than just a couple hours of entertainment.

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