Happiness Narrative in Three Movies

By Vida Penezic

The latest scientific research suggests that biology (50%) and circumstances (10%) determine only about 60% of our happiness levels; the rest is up to us. In other words, happiness is (at least in part) a learnable skill. My larger research question is: If happiness is 40% learned, what role does popular culture play in this process?  This paper looks at the portrayals of happiness in three movies, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Wedding Crashers, and Downsizing, and asks: What do these movies tell us (what do they teach us?) about happiness?

The paper makes three claims:

1. A standard plot of a popular movie (a hero/heroine wants or needs something and has to overcome obstacles in order to get it) is ultimately about pursuing happiness.  Positive psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar argues that happiness is the “ultimate currency.” Everything we do or want to have—material success, family, a good time with friends—we do or want because we think it will make us happy. It follows that whatever movie characters want to achieve or get, they most likely believe that that thing/person/achievement will make them happy.  Thus, in addition to a specific plot line, each movie also contains a happiness narrative.

2. In order to portray this quest for happiness, each movie draws on a particular understanding (a particular definition or theory) of happiness.  This affects the ways the movie characters pursue, experience, and express happiness, as well as the components of happiness, which are the things that the movie considers necessary for the characters to be happy.  By analyzing the happiness narrative and the components of happiness, we can discern the theory of happiness that the movie espouses.

3. Gender, ethnicity, and class often affect a character’s position in the movie’s happiness narrative.

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