The opposite of Happy-Well, in movies and in life

I just watched the movie that won Best Picture of 2007: No Country for Old Men.” I also watched another big movie this week: “There Will be Blood.” What do these very dark and pessimistic movies have to do with this blog, which is focused on how to be happy and well? Well, as I wrote previously (Life and death in the movies), good and bad, life and death, are two sides of the same coin. In Aging Well, Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant did not find that people who aged well had especially charmed lives free of stress and tragedy; rather, they were able to look at the glass of life as half-full rather than half-empty. They experienced deprivation and loss, but managed somehow to look at the positives. At the same time, denial of reality does not help one attain happiness and that is not what he is recommending. Nor am I.

Dark movies about evil people can jar us out of complacency and challenge us to dig deep to find something positive to hope for. In the case of both of these grim movies, one can come away appreciative that it was a movie, and not our own life. Depictions of evil, if done artistically and with a certain amount of irony, can themselves show goodness, in a paradoxical way.

I had not planned this, but it seems I will use movies to generate thoughts and feelings about life and viewing the glass as half-full. I love movies, and probably have seen 20 or 30 per year for the last 5 decades. (I have also read hundreds of books, but I find movies easier to use in discussion — partly because more people have seen them than may have read a particular book.) Some movies grab us intensely in a brief time, and that can be a powerful experience.

Disturbing movies can shake us and challenge us in a way that mostly happy movies do not (I loved “Juno” and “Enchanted,” for example, but did not feel particularly challenged by them). Other movies present a balanced view of good and evil, and affirm the better sides of our nature, while still challenging us with tragedy and loss (for example, the movies I discussed in my previous post).

Which other movies capture the hopefulness of positive attitudes in the face of adversity, loss, or despair?  Several come to mind immediately: “The Band’s Visit,” “The Station Agent,” “The Visitor,” “Walk on Water,”  and “Once.” I risk making enemies when I praise specific movies, because we all have such unique taste.

Of course, movies cannot really capture the stark contrasts of dark and light that most of us experience in real life. As a psychiatrist for many decades, as well as a person living a complex life, I have experienced tragedy and loss up close and very personal. But movies can be shared and discussed and can illustrate the kinds of profound dilemmas we experience in real life.

And some movies can help us “reframe” an event or response in a more positive way, or a way with more potential for hope, as described in Weight Management for Your Life:

When we consciously look at a glass as half full rather than half empty, we are doing what many therapists teach their patients to do: using willpower to reframe, or change a negative way of looking at a problem into one with positive features. This does not mean we should automatically tell a person who just lost a loved one, “Be happy, s/he is in a better place!” Usually, reframing is most useful when applied to our own situation. It should be done intelligently and sensitively, and the rule of thumb here is to reframe in a positive way unless there is a good reason not to. That is, do not use reframing as a way of putting on rose-colored glasses in order to deny or distort reality. A successful reframe is both potentially true (factual, realistic) and positive. “Half full” and “half empty” are both true, but only one is positive.

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2 Responses to “The opposite of Happy-Well, in movies and in life”

  1. Chip Kincaid Says:

    It’s interesting to consider the way that darker movies, as a group, can positively affect the viewer’s life. For one, they certainly help formulate the viewer’s personal set of possible actions, when faced with the darkness the world contains. Certainly, one shouldn’t allow oneself to become dominated and maddened by isolation and selfishness, as Daniel Plainview did. After watching There Will Be Blood, I would say that lesson is more clear and accessible to me.

    No Country for Old Men is the more morally challenging film of the two, IMO, and I think it is a result of the source material. The book is often labeled as “minor McCarthy,” because of its non-threatening length and simpler story (as compared with The Road and others). However, No Country discusses some of the most crucial and unanswerable questions that plague us. It portrays evil as boundless and permeating throughout society, a force that inevitably finds you and affects you. It is that challenge that is at the core of the movie, as manifested in the spiritual struggle of Tommy Lee Jones’s character. I’m not sure if the movie provides any hope at all–maybe that isn’t its job. But at the least, it forces you to face the aspects of the world that we like to avoid facing. And by doing it in a way that is ironic and artistic (as you insightfully pointed out), it makes it tolerable.

    I’ve replied to your comment on my blog as well, to help continue the conversation. Keep up the good work–I appreciate that there are people writing on the internet with intentions that transcend the snarky entertainment of blogs like mine :)

  2. ripplegirl Says:

    Thanks for commenting on my post- it brought me to yours which was a pleasant find for me. About dark movies, after I have watched them, I do try to affirm the positive in life, which is perhaps part of what you are saying. But the reason for affirming the positive is because I don’t want to believe we live in a world where bad things happen (although I know it does). So yes it does make you look at things more positively, but is it a form of denial?

    Quote:
    ”Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant did not find that people who aged well had especially charmed lives free of stress and tragedy; rather, they were able to look at the glass of life as half-full rather than half-empty. They experienced deprivation and loss, but managed somehow to look at the positives. At the same time, denial of reality does not help one attain happiness and that is not what he is recommending. Nor am I.”

    I agree with this statement, and I always try to apply it my own life but often I must admit I do end up feeling like a fool in denial for seeing the positive when things are so obviously negative. It is like Churchill said: Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm. I believe this but sometimes I think I’m just a fool when I check my battle scars:)

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