The Oscars will air this Sunday. Psychologist Ryan Niemiec is the co-author of Positive Psychology at the Movies, which uses hundreds of films to illustrate the strengths and virtues that enable people to lead happier, more fulfilling lives. In this piece, originally published in Positive Psychology News on February 23, Niemiec applies his perspective to this year’s Oscar nominees.
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 suffering, and shine a light on pain and tragedy. You’ll see a mixture of both types of films in my offering of the Positive Psychology Movie Awards for 2011.
Oscar for Positive Relationships: A Better Life
Extraordinary film about a father who is an illegal immigrant to the United States and a single parent struggling to find work. His adolescent son is looking for outlets and is slowly getting taken into the gang world of Los Angeles. The father makes conscious shifts in his life to connect more with his son and express his love more clearly. This shift makes all the difference. The movie shows how a positive relationship can save a life.
Oscar for Resilience: The Help
Depiction of the poor treatment and resilience of African American maids in Mississippi during the time of the Jim Crow laws, when Mississippi was considered the worst state in the nation with respect to the treatment and segregation of African-Americans. The film is about having a mindset of fairness and kindness that drives the expression of bravery and perseverance.
Oscar for Happiness: Happy
Roko Belic directs this positive psychology documentary that brings the science of happiness to life with engaging stories, interviews, and keen insights from cross-cultural perspectives. Those that missed World Happy Day, check out The Happy Movie site for information about big-screen showings.
Oscar for Mindfulness: Crazy Stupid Love
Mindlessness pervades two male protagonists. One (Ryan Gosling) is locked in routines of womanizing, while the other (Steve Carell) is mindless and lacks spontaneity in his marriage. Each man has a wake-up call to become more mindful about what really matters and what it means to be in relationship with another.
Oscar for Engagement (of viewer): Carnage
Four of the world’s top actors (Jodi Foster, Christoph Waltz, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly) collide in this highly engrossing exhibition of conflict. This is viewer engagement at its fullest. Multi-layered tensions emerge between each dyad, exposing vulnerability and the raw fact about humanity that we each have a breaking point. This Roman Polanski film exhibits ways that positive psychology can learn from that which is negative. As a viewer, where you see conflict, consider where forgiveness might be better played; where there is blame, consider kindness; and where there is hostility, look for fairness.
Oscars for Achievement (by a director): The Tree of Life and Melancholia
This award goes to two directors (Terrence Malick and Lars von Trier, respectfully) for accomplishing memorable works of art.
Both films integrate breathtaking, surrealistic images with tragic, painful plot lines. Unlike the directors, both films exhibit characters that fail in achievement due to inherent deficits. Whereas Victor Frankl spoke of a tragic optimism where individuals are able to turn suffering into accomplishment, these characters wither in their suffering.
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 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.
You can also read Niemiec’s list of Oscar nominees that illustrate specific human strengths, such as teamwork, authenticity, and zest.