Many months ago I attended a lecture by Lindsay Doran on Psychology as an approach to understanding story. It was hosted by the Blacklist. For anyone interested, her Ted Talk covers much of the same material.
Ms. Doran is a studio executive that has helped in the development of a number of films, including recently The Lego Movie. She also has a fondness for Positive Psychology. For those not familiar, the wiki page is actually pretty good on the subject. In short, it’s an approach to human psychology that focuses on the positive side of functioning, such as how to become optimistic, or what helps someone thrive rather than removing a problem or deficit.
I believe this is a valuable approach to understanding the human condition, and adds a necessary perspective to a world very preoccupied with pathology and problems. Dr. Martin Seligman is one of the most influential leaders in Positive Psychology, authoring such books as “Learned Optimism,” and “Flourish.” In a world so focused on tragedy all the time, turning our attention to developing the good things makes complete sense to me.
Doran went on to reference Seligman’s core components of well-being, namely PERMA:
Positive Emotion – Simply, about feeling good.
Engagement – Being absorbed in a process or activity.
Relationships – Feeling connected and involved with others
Meaning – Finding purposeful existence
Accomplishment – Achievement as a form of success
Seligman identifies these as the components of having a fulfilled life. Doran believes they are the key to what makes certain movies successful.
Doran even uses these ideas (PERMA) as a lens to identify what makes films inspiring or uplifting. She further draws conclusions about the movie industry going too dark, and that just as positive psychology redirected therapy towards the positive, lighthearted films without tragedy (like Airplane, Young Frankenstein) are fun for fun’s sake. She believes there should be more of these lighthearted fun comedies that help us to vicariously just have a joyful experience.
I agree with much of her message, though I believe she might be missing some points.
Regarding PERMA, Doran references an audience researcher who stated that he knew that people don’t really care about accomplishments. So even though we can be fixated on an achievement appearing to be the entire point of a story, we only care about it when it is tied to other things in the life of the character. So the A of PERMA seems less important.
Positive emotions obviously have their own point, and I would agree that lighthearted films serve a great purpose. Laughing feels good. Sometimes we just feel like a comedy for ninety minutes.
On the other hand, positive emotions on their own lack context. Sometimes what makes comedy so wonderful is that it is “comic relief,” as in relief from heavier topics. A comedic movie is really our comic relief from the heaviness of everyday life.
Movies serve a greater purpose than simply to entertain or distract. They serve a purpose in reflecting on the world, and in helping us gain perspective on how to live. Doran herself states that one of the purposes of movies is to answer the question of how we should live.
It is in that question that I believe Doran loses focus. She emphasizes the Positive Emotion of PERMA, while not sufficiently emphasizing the Meaning. I think she nails it with the importance of relationships, and has a direct point that women want to watch movies about relationships, and that men can only handle the relationships indirectly. Accomplishment in movies only feel good when it’s shared with someone.
This focus though on accomplishment and relationships, as well as on the positive, misses the reason that the industry has turned dark. We suffer. People feel a sense of suffering every day, and they are looking for some way to understand that. They are looking for meaning from it. And in the absence of meaning, they at least want to not feel alone in it. They want resonance, and portraying a dark theme that matches what they feel about the world resonates with them.
I posit the idea of suffering and sacrifice as being important values. In writing we set up stakes for protagonists, and often put them through hell to earn their accomplishment. That protagonist suffers and sacrifices, and what they do with that suffering and sacrifice gives meaning.
In that way it is the transformation of negative into positive that we want. We want ways to get through our own suffering, whether that be light movies (respite), or darker movies finding meaning (transforms suffering into something useful). Dark movies can masquerade as jaded, when really they may be vicarious relationship movies, where we can feel connected to someone who has suffered the way we’ve suffered. Which comes back to the idea of not wanting to feel alone. We connect to a character. We don’t want them to die because we want to stay connected to them.
Of course I agree with the point made by many (including Doran) that our fascination with pathology and problems, with what’s “wrong” can miss the larger picture. That process can even result in getting stuck in bad emotions, such as wallowing. Yet a focus on the Positive Emotions of positive psychology seems to neglect the real human suffering that occurs.
We become whole not through avoiding the negative but through owning it and transforming it.
Doran pulls many references from the AFI list of top 100 films to explore her hypothesis.
I’d like to look at a different movie, that of Cast Away.
At the surface it’s a story about survival. Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) gets deserted on an island, away from the love of his life. He suffers. He learns to survive. He becomes so lonely he makes a relationship with a volleyball to have a friend. He builds himself a boat and gets away. We feel for him throughout. It’s primal. We see him cling to the last remnants of civilization in a beautiful butterfly on a box. He gets home, and he loses again. The love of his life has married someone else.
I love this movie. It was a massive success in the US and internationally. It doesn’t have many positive emotions at all. He loses his fiancee. He doesn’t accomplish anything but survival. His relationships are almost nil. He loses his entire identity. So it should be depressing. And yet there’s a transformative hope built into the film. We watch him suffer, and he finds a way out of it. There’s a lovely monologue of him talking about his loneliness and despair, and how he just remembers to keep breathing. A message for us all.
Finally he delivers this box that had kept him inspired. He meets a woman and we have a glimpse of hope. Maybe he was meant to meet her all along. Or maybe that’s my interpretation of it.
It’s a beautiful story of survival.
Viktor Frankl pioneered his own approach to therapy long before Seligman, which focused on meaning. I recommend everyone should read his book Man’s Search for Meaning. It’s a quick read. He was a psychiatrist who survived the concentration camps. At the time the wisdom was that when men have enough taken away from them, they’ll revert to animals. His experience was that people could be incredibly kind, and that those who survived had a reason to live. They found meaning and purpose in their suffering, even if it was just to survive to fulfill their purpose.
Now I don’t want to pretend that suffering, sacrifice, and transforming it into meaning is the key to what makes all movies powerful. Doran has clearly broke some great conceptual ground in thinking about films with a lens other than traditional formulas. But the Meaning component seems underemphasized by Doran. I heard many that night say that it was a transformational experience for them, yet in the vein that I hear so many emphasize “positive thinking” as a solution to the parts of themselves they dislike.
When we overvalue any one side, we miss the whole picture.