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How to Be Happy … According to the Movies

Movies' Lessons to Being Happy
Warner Bros. Pictures

“The only thing that will make you happy is being happy with who you are” – Goldie Hawn

Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. The conception of “happy” is so important that we go around every day asking: what will make us happy? What will make the people we love happy? Billion-dollar industries directly market happiness.

Yet some psychologists believe we can never find lasting happiness. To be happy for an extended period of time is to be content. And to be content is to be eaten by a lion in the wilderness our brain still thinks we live in. Evolutionary speaking, maybe our brains can’t keep us happy? I’m starting to sound overly cynical so I should mention other psychologists are more optimistic about our chances to find everlasting happiness.

Movies, by and large, fall on the side of believing in happiness. Beyond believing, instructing. 

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From driving off into the sunset or finding lasting peace, movies’ “happy endings” are unambiguous. Not all movies have happy endings, of course, where some push their characters into their darkest moments and leave them there. Others are mostly sad, but end with a bit of optimism. 

But regardless of whether or not a movie ends happily, most of them suggest the possibility that it could. In the absence of real happiness for a hero, there is the implication that had they taken a different path, they might’ve been happy. With Hollywood’s confidence in achievable, lasting happiness, I decided to examine some of the things Hollywood has convinced us are the key to the most desired human emotion. 

Love

No surprises here. Even thinking of a film’s happy ending, chances are it’s the guy running through the airport and getting the one who almost got away. But it’s not the idea that love, in whatever form, is a key component of happiness—a statement unlikely to cause controversy—but it is the confidence movies have on the way love should play out.

Love and happiness in movies are often linked through mythical or spiritual entities. It is less what you do and more where you look. Remember “Serendipity” with Kate Beckinsale and John Cusack? The premise of that film hinges on destiny. Why should they be together? The universe is telling them.

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Even movies like “Crazy, Stupid, Love” fall into this category. Sure, not all the relationships are destined to workout. But the main characters, Cal and Emily, suggest that the idea of a “soul mate” has some merit. While we never see any sort of reconciliation here, Cal’s ending does make it seem like they were soul mates. 

That’s not to say all romance films fall into this way of thinking. There’s such a variety on opinions presented in the genre. But, by nature of film structure, two characters are usually meant to be. It doesn’t matter if the movie deals with soul mates or fate explicitly. It’s because the structure is as follows: meet-cute or revelation of sparks, the struggles, the success. But by the meet-cute, we, the audience, have decided that the two lead characters belong together. 

No other ending would be satisfying. Assuming they have chemistry, a crucial aspect of a good romance, we demand that these two find their way to each other. A different ending would not be happy. Due to the predetermined nature of films, as well as familiarity with structure, love and happiness are created by outside forces. There is a right and a wrong. Finding is more important than creating. 

Romance also tends to be black and white. The relationship is working or else it is failing. In “This is 40,” a film that looks at romance after marriage, things are good and then they are not good. In the same way, happiness operates like an on/off switch. 

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Balance

It’s not quite surprising that the movie industry—built at large for profit—sees money as some sort of key. But I would be hard pressed to find many movies that actually suggest money buys happiness. Common logic holds the opposite. And while many films will critique people who have money and who have power, there is still a push for career climbing, to a certain degree.

In the Jim Carrey rom com “Yes Man,” protagonist Carl finds part of his good fortune coming in the form of a big promotion at work. Saying “yes” to things allowed him to be a stronger worker. However, films like “Up in the Air” criticize the workaholic mentality. 

What these films argue together, though, is that balance is the key. George Clooney’s character Ryan needs to find some stability, and Carl needs to figure out where he needs to say yes as well as no. Movies in general seem to support the idea of balance.

Part of the reason is that there are various tenants of life that all need to exist in harmony. Or so the perfect movie ending suggests. Getting the promotion at work and getting married and having children and being able to manage it all at once. 

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Dopamine

As far as brain chemicals go, it’s hard to beat dopamine. Easily the most famous. It’s commonly associated with happiness itself, with many believing it is the chemical in our brains that causes happiness. In fact, many researchers now understand that dopamine doesn’t actually signal happiness, but the anticipation of happiness instead. 

Neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky studied dopamine activity in monkeys trained to expect a reward after pressing a button ten times after a signal was activated. Dopamine spiked during the button pressing, not in receiving the reward. But more interestingly, when they only gave the monkey a treat 50% of the time (the least predictable amount), they released twice the amount of dopamine. 

It’s not just anticipation but also unpredictability that causes dopamine spikes. Yet many people confuse the anticipation with the actual happiness. It doesn’t matter that receiving the reward may be underwhelming, because dopamine continues to push for more. 

What does this have to do with movies? Well, anticipation and unpredictability are staples of many of great films. In a variety of ways, like many people do with dopamine, films also confound the anticipation of happiness with the actual reward. Back to our example of “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” Cal never actually gets Emily back. But the ending is quite uplifting regardless because Cal has determined he will try. 

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At the end of formulaic rom coms, when the two lovers drive into the sunset, it is less of the actual act of being together in that moment that causes happiness, but rather the anticipation of a beautiful future together, both for the viewer and the characters. It doesn’t matter if we then watch “Marriage Story,” because it’s not about the eventual relationship. It’s about the feeling of “what could be.” The credits roll long before we ever see what it is. “Casablanca” sees the “start” of a beautiful friendship.


But that’s what movies are. What could be. The movies do seem to have a pretty strong sense of how to achieve happiness. Listen to destiny, balance all the pieces of your world, and get ready for the perfect life, without ever having to let it live up to the impossible ideal of your heightened dopamine levels. 

It’s also what makes movies so special. And why I love them. At every stage of the process, from writing to directing to acting, film is imbued with so much humanity. It’s not an objective playbook or a flawed cultural moment, but rather a group of human artists grappling with the most human question that we all wrestle with: how can we be happy? 

The characters of the film ask the question through their words, the creators ask it through their actions, and the viewers ask it though their emotions. 

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And while we all know that life doesn’t follow a three-act structure, and is much messier, watching artists wrangle control and chart a potential path to the most elusive human state is always exciting—and potentially frustrating. In the best way possible.