The Positive Psychology of the Movies

The Oscar goes to positive psychology teachers

Posted Feb 24, 2013

All of the films nominated teach the core components of the positive psychology model PERMA: Positive Emotion (P), Engagement through Emotional Strength (E), Relationships (R), Meaning (M), and Accomplishment (A). In Beasts of the Southern Wild, the tight-knit community in the Bathtub is full of positive emotions countering negative emotions, shared strength, inherent meaning, and accomplishment that create powerful bonds and relationships in the community. In Life of Pi, the shift to positive emotion and the sustaining relationships in a horrifically altered universe is driven by signature strengths forged in spiritual meaning and belief. In Lincoln, the emotional self-regulation that is essential to a historic accomplishment for the good of others is a formidable force. Silver Linings: optimism. In every story, positive psychology is a matter of survival.

The rich cache of movies - including documentaries - suitable for students of all ages offers teachers a curriculum treasure trove for teaching academic subjects using emotional learning that evokes and provokes feeling, thought, and action. Yet, few classrooms enrich learning with film in any systematic, infused way. Many of the films available including television films and documentaries include standards-based curriculum and teacher guides. Schools are missing the chance to teach not only important academic subjects in enriching and engaging ways, but to teach the power of positive psychology for self, others, and the community.

Ryan Niemiec and Danny Wedding wrote a book that helps teachers use films to teach positive psychology in the classroom. Their book, Positive Psychology at the Movies: Using Films to Build Virtues and Character Strength, explains exactly how to use film to learn about the concepts and the real-life benefits of positive psychology. The book identifies 100 of the best movies to use to teach the strengths of positive psychology.

The authors use the six virtues and twenty-four strengths of the Character and Strengths Inventory as the criterion to select and cross-reference all the movies reviewed.According to the authors, the most common positive psychology strengths portrayed in films are creativity, bravery, persistence, hope, love, kindness, and spirituality/meaning.

The Story of Movies project is the study of classic films by students grade four  through grade eight. Students train to notice how music, lighting, and dialogue influence feelings, shift mood, and alter their perspective. Young children become expert observers noting who managed his negative emotions well like Nemo and bad examples like the Grinch who did not.

Older children give examples of a television show or movie scene where the camera zooms out so they see a larger panorama or in for a close-up scene with a narrow view. They discuss how the angle of the camera changes perspective and emotional reaction.

Students conduct a formal character analysis comparing and contrasting the characters’ feelings to their own under similar circumstances. They learn to find the emotion that fortifies and propels the film’s characters and their stories.

The Teach with Movies Project website is a contributor to the U.S. Department of Education’s Gateway to Educational Materials (GEM) project that provides a central clearinghouse for the best web-based lesson plans and teacher resources. This project focuses on films that teach positive psychology lessons. The developers have catalogued more than 350 films with teacher guides and lesson plans organized by age: three years to fifteen years. For example, children aged seven-to nine-years old watch The Adventures of Huck Fin and children nine-to-twelve years old watch the film 1776.

Roll out the red carpet and invite the movies into your classroom.

Do you use film to teach in your classroom? What films do you use and what do you teach using the films? Would you like more autonomy to use film to teach academic and positive psychology lessons in your classroom? Would your school consider a school-wide weekly film day as the organizing curriculum for all subjects every Friday as a synthesis learning activity? What is your favorite film now? What was your favorite film as a child? What is the most important idea you learned or knowledge you acquired through a film? What is the most important positive psychology lesson that you learned?



Niemiec, R.M., & Wedding, D. (2008). Positive psychology at the movies: Using film to build virtues and character strengths. Cambridge, MA: Hogrefe Publishing.

Web Resources

Stanton, A. (2003). Finding Nemo website. Los Angeles: Walt Disney/Pixar Studios. Retrieved

Teach with Movies Organization (n. d.). Lesson plans for films and movies. Santa Monica, CA: Teach with Movies

The Film Foundation (no date). The story of movies. Retrieved


Available March 2013: Positive Psychology in the Elementary School Classroom and is the first in a series intended to help teachers build positive psychology classrooms.

Author Page: