Happiness is notoriously subjective. Indeed, most scientific attempts to measure happiness simply rely on self-reports. One survey tool, for example, asks people to rate their satisfaction with life on a scale of 1 to 10. Other studies have attempted more objective measures of happiness by observing heart rate, blood pressure, brain activity, and hormone levels.
How do scientists try to provoke those happy physiological responses in a lab? Usually they do it by showing study participants happy movies. In one study, for example, researchers tried to induce happy feelings in a group of senior citizens by showing them clips from On Golden Pond and An Officer and a Gentleman. It works: Studies consistently show that watching happy movies stimulates feelings of happiness in viewers.
But why do these films make us happy? At the most basic level, of course, seeing a film’s protagonist achieve happiness can trigger feelings of happiness in the viewer for the simple reason that humans are so wonderfully tuned to each other’s feelings that even a one-dimensional image can trigger empathic connection. Happiness is like a virus that movies can help spread.
But in the films I’ve chosen to discuss below, there is something else going on as well. In Classical philosophy, writes historian Darrin M. McMahon in a May 2009 Greater Good essay, “happiness is never simply a function of good feeling—of what puts a smile on our face—but rather of living good lives, lives that will almost certainly include a good deal of pain.” Lots of movies make us laugh, but few try to portray happiness as a tough, complex journey.
That might be why the films that make me most happy depict characters who earn their happiness through acts of goodness that sometimes entail sacrifice. In each of these films some hard truth is revealed, but in a way that leads me to accept that truth. People die; love fades; hopes fail. Yet somehow, life goes on. These films try to teach us how to live with loss and disappointment so that the revelation of truth leaves us—or just me, at least—experiencing contentment, satisfaction, maybe even joy.
”Modern Times,” reads the first title card of Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 masterpiece, is “a story of industry, of individual enterprise—humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness.” This soaring, straight-faced sentiment ends up being an ironic joke; assembly-line civilization foils the Little Tramp’s pursuit of happiness at every turn. So why does this film make me so happy? The machines of Modern Times wreak havoc with the resilient Little Tramp’s body as his movements turn hilariously mechanical. At the same time, however, Modern Times reveals the humanity in our machines; they are every bit as absurd and dysfunctional as the people who created them. And ultimately, Modern Times is reassuring: No matter how much technology changes society, we’ll never stop finding reasons to laugh at ourselves. “Buck up, never say die!” the Little Tramp tells his wife, a prototypical feminist heroine. “We’ll get along!” And, incredibly, they do.
The Wizard of Oz (1939) bored me when I was a child. Then I watched it in college—a period of my life when I wore a lot of black and read too much depressing poetry—and I was overcome by good feeling. Since then, I’ve watched this film more times than I can count, most recently with my five-year-old son. And as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate The Wizard of Oz’s psychological sophistication. When Dorothy tears down the curtain, we discover that the magic is a lie and that the Wizard is simply a roly-poly, red-nosed little man. We should feel disappointed; instead, the truth is weirdly liberating, and we come to appreciate Dorothy’s plainspoken heroism, her willingness to confront and dispel the illusions that hold her back.
Harold and Maude (1971) has made a lot of people happy, and it’s not hard to understand why. Like Wings of Desire, another film on this list, it tries to discover happiness in the face of death. But unlike Wings of Desire, Harold and Maude is giddy, playful, and funny. Harold is a morbid teenager who drives a hearse and stages suicides for the “benefit” of his wealthy, self-absorbed mother. But when Harold falls in love with 79-year-old Maude, he learns to live in the moment. “A lot of people enjoy being dead,” says Maude, adding:
But they are not dead, really. They’re just backing away from life. Reach out. Take a chance. Get hurt, even. But play as well as you can. Go team, go! Give me an L. Give me an I. Give me a V. Give me an E. L-I-V-E. LIVE! Otherwise, you got nothing to talk about in the locker room.
It’s a simple message, perhaps, but we all need a reminder from time to time that life is for living. Harold and Maude asks us all to be like Maude, and she’s a good person to be.
Wings of Desire (1987) wears its stylish melancholy like a trench coat. And yet after each of the dozen times I’ve watched it, I have found myself suffused by feelings of happiness. Of course, the film does have a happy ending, albeit an ambiguous one: The angel Damiel trades immortality for an ephemeral life with the woman he loves. In Wings of Desire, love is tied up in loss; our feelings of happiness arise from our acceptance of this inescapable fact. “I’m fed up with my spiritual existence,” says Damiel. “Instead of forever hovering above I’d like to feel a weight grow in me to end the infinity and to tie me to Earth.” Each fleeting moment in time asks the characters to change, to evolve, to struggle. This, the film argues, is the only pathway to true happiness.
Lisbon Story (1994) tells the story of Winter, who creates sound effects for movies. He travels to the city of Lisbon to meet his friend, the film director Fritz, but Fritz is nowhere to be found. Winter spends the time gathering sounds throughout the city: children playing, pigeons in a square, a trolley car climbing a hill. This gentle film—which, like Wings of Desire, was directed by Wim Wenders—is about the satisfactions of creative work, which quite often entails obsessive attention to detail, a constant openness and awareness of what happens in your environment, and a state of “flow” in which, according to research by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, we forget ourselves and become one with the task at hand. Lisbon Story is about the special happiness that can be discovered in doing hard, good work.
The Straight Story (1999) is a startling film, not least because surrealist director David Lynch (remember Blue Velvet?) made it. Lynch’s films are often singled out for their strangeness, but the strangest thing about The Straight Story is that it is about something as basic as human decency among working-class people. The film follows 73-year-old widower Alvin Straight as he drives his lawnmower at five miles an hour through the Midwest to visit his dying brother. That might sound dull, but the film’s narrative is hypnotic and compelling. The mutual act of forgiveness that ends the film left me feeling elevated and reflective. I asked myself: Could I ever be as good as Alvin?
Together (2000) is about a hippie leftist commune in 1970s Sweden, but pivots on the relationship between the estranged couple Elisabeth and Rolf, who start the movie in a completely conventional marriage. In fact, Together is littered with broken relationships. Characters quit the commune, cutting themselves off from the others with abstract ideologies or psychological drives that leave them isolated. One man prefers porn to intimacy with his wife; one couple rejects the commune when they deem it insufficiently radical. The characters that thrive are the ones who are able to tolerate the imperfections they see in others and in their own ideals. But the secret hero of the film is Birger, a lonely old man who befriends Rolf. Birger has given up on himself and on any chance for happiness, but he leads Rolf to reconciliation with Elisabeth. She comes to accept Rolf’s flaws—and we are asked to accept the flaws in each other and in ourselves. The result is a wise, goofy kind of happiness, the kind that arises from what psychologist Kristin Neff calls “self-compassion,” where we not only forgive ourselves for our mistakes but see them as a sign of our common humanity.
Whale Rider (2002) is the story of Pai, a 12-year-old girl who earns her place as leader of her Maori tribe in New Zealand—a role that was supposed to fall to her dead twin brother. Shunned by her village and rejected by her grandfather because she’s an uppity girl, Pai demonstrates astounding strength and grace in overcoming the social and spiritual obstacles that stand in her way. Her story reveals the happiness that can be found in a sense of community and in service to that community. But it’s also the story of Pai’s grandfather, whose rigid traditionalism prevents him from accepting female heroism and leadership. When that barrier dissolves, we see an old man grow; it allows him, and us, to experience an uneasy happiness, a kind in which we see old ways fall to the wayside but new ones emerge.
Robot Stories (2003) makes for an interesting continuation of the themes of Modern Times. Consisting of four stories about the relationships between people and technology, this small-scale, sensitively directed indie feature explores what robots reveal about human psychology. In the first story, a woman’s emotional horizons expand when she learns to care for a robot baby. In the final story, a dying old man refuses digital immortality, for reasons that are morally and emotionally complex. Each haiku-like story is shot through with sadness, but they are also little portraits of hard-won human goodness. In a sense, Robot Stories offers further proof for Modern Times’ thesis: Here we are almost 70 years later—with our computers, TV, space travel, and genetic engineering—but it seems that no amount of technological change can erase our humanity, warts and all.
The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) has all the qualities of a sentimental, stand-up-and-cheer Hollywood film. Based on the memoir by Chris Gardner, it depicts a father’s struggle to rescue himself and his son from homelessness and to become a successful stockbroker. But this plot summary obscures the darkness in the characters. Actor Will Smith’s troubling performance conveys the real psychological and physical danger his character faces—which makes the descent of Gardner and his son into homelessness genuinely distressing.
So why does this film make me happy? If the deeply flawed Gardner had been alone—if he had not had his son to take care of—he surely would have disappeared into the streets, another lost soul on the sidewalk. Instead, he struggles for the life of his son, not just for his own. By the end of the movie, Gardner is damaged and exhausted, but he still emerges as a better man. As with the Little Tramp, Dorothy, Harold, Damiel, and the other heroes of these movies, Gardner’s happiness is not a matter of luck or momentary pleasure. Their stories ask all of us to live more thoughtful, meaningful lives.
Go here to read more suggestions from Greater Good readers about what films made them happy.