Picture this: I’m on the edge of my seat (literally) in a crowded movie theater viewing Ben Affleck's new film Argo, currently the number one film in the U.S. The audience and I are captivated by the story of Tony Mendez, a CIA agent’s desperate attempt in 1980 to save the lives of six hostages from a revolutionary Iran. Mendez’s creative idea of pretending to make a movie in Iran becomes the only hope of saving the hostages. The intensity is riveting. All of the viewer’s attention focuses on what might be the next plot development – will the hostages make it through the airport checkpoints? What obstacles will they face next? How can they possibly overcome them?
But then I reflected more deeply: What really matters most in terms of this story as it unfolds before me? What I found surprised me.
My hopes went beyond the escape of the hostages…and beyond seeing a masterful plan well-executed to success. What mattered most to me was what will happen to these hostages and the main protagonist after the escape? I found myself longing to see Mendez return home so he could make another attempt to re-connect with his wife whom he had separated from. I wanted him to see his young son again and have more positive experiences with him. I wanted the hostages to celebrate their escape with one another and reintegrate back into everyday life.
Said another way: I wanted to see the exhibition of positive relationship factors, not just the grand achievement of a safe escape.
It turns out, research on movies has found support for my experience of Argo. Hollywood producer, Lindsay Doran, has studied and made successful films for decades and has recently examined what audiences are looking for most. She found that it’s the positive resolution of relationships – not the character winning – that is most satisfying. She cites beloved films like Dirty Dancing, The King’s Speech, and The Karate Kid, all which have great accomplishments in the end – however, it’s the celebration and the sharing of that achievement that audiences care about most. This occurs in each of these films.
In Argo, there is celebration, relief, gratitude, compassion, hope, serenity, and utter joy that occur after the achievement. Positive relationships occupy the last several minutes of the film leaving the viewer with what he or she wants. The viewer is left to vicariously feel these positive emotions and perhaps one more feeling: elevation.
Cinematic elevationoccurs when the viewer observes a portrayal of goodness or a character strength, the viewer experiences physiological sensations of inspiration such as tingling in the arms and neck and warming in the chest, and is then motivated to do good. When applied to Argo, there are many opportunities for the viewer to feel cinematic elevation – the exemplary bravery, kindness, and self-regulation required of Mendez’s heroism; the genuine love, courage, and teamwork expressed by the hostages; the humility and underlying love of Mendez when he shows up on his wife’s doorstep. The viewer sees these strengths-in-action and is perhaps then motivated to do good for others, to imitate the positive qualities, and to be a better person. Indeed, several studies have shown elevation boosts altruism.
The next time you go to the movies, consider this: As you watch the film unfold, what are you really hoping for in order to be satisfied with the film? Do positive relationships trump achievement?
Algoe, S. B., & Haidt, J. (2009). Witnessing excellence in action: The 'other-praising' emotions of elevation, gratitude, and admiration. Journal of Positive Psychology, 4, 105-127.
Aquino, K., McFerran, B., & Laven, M. (2011). Moral identity and the experience of moral elevation in response to acts of uncommon goodness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(4), 703-718
Niemiec, R. M. (2012). Cinematic elevation and cinematic admiration: Can watching movies positively impact you? Amplifier, a publication of Division 46 (Media).
Niemiec, R. M., & Wedding, D. (2013). Positive psychology at the movies: Using films to build virtues and character strengths. Cambridge, MA: Hogrefe.
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press, and Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Schnall, S., Roper, J., & Fessler, D. M. T. (2010). Elevation leads to altruism, above and beyond general positive affect. Psychological Science, 21, 315-320.
Schnall, S., & Roper, J. (2011). Elevation puts moral values into action. Social Psychological and Personality Science.
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