What "Groundhog Day" Teaches Us About Happiness

Life is like school. If we perform exceptionally well in our courses, we go on.

Posted Jun 13, 2018

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The 1993 film Groundhog Day chronicles the life of Phil Connors. The main character, played by Bill Murray, is a self-absorbed weatherman who is given the work assignment to cover Groundhog Day in a small town. The arrogant weatherman makes no secret of his contempt of his task, where he is forced to take up residence in a part of America he considers backwards and beneath him. 

The movie’s twist comes on February 2. Phil wakes up at 6:00 a.m. He goes through his day and at the end of it, turns in for the night. He wakes up in the morning and, to his disbelief, the day’s events unfold exactly as they had the previous day. The next day, events repeat themselves again. He soon realizes he’s stuck in a time loop. Regardless of what he does—drives a truck off a cliff, jumps off a bell tower, stands in front of a moving truck—he wakes up the next day unharmed and reliving the same day once more. 

Initially, when Phil Connors figures out he’ll repeat the same day without any consequences, he indulges himself. He steals, is violent toward others, and seduces women. When he grows tired of this routine and fears he will never be able to escape this fate, he becomes angry. After his angry stage subsides, he comes to accept his lot in life and learns to enjoy it. He gains mastery of the piano, foreign languages, and creating stunning ice sculptures with a chainsaw. 

Over time, the once haughty man sheds his egotistical exterior, and works toward improving his life and those around him. He takes earnest interest in the lives of those in his community, comes to the aid of a homeless person, rescues a man falling from a tree, and performs the Heimlich maneuver on choking restaurant patron. He learns to embrace life and falls in love with his news producer.  

While at first, Groundhog Day is a thoroughly entertaining comedy, when you dig below its funny surface, you realize it presents a powerful message. First, it portrays the evolution of its main character from self-absorbed and cynical to selfless and optimistic

Second, it shows how, given the opportunity to repeat his day over and over again, Phil had many choices. And in the end, after exhausting his options that hurt himself and others, he chose to use his life to love himself and those around him. At this point, he is mysteriously freed from the endless time loop. 

Shedding Light on the Dark Places in Our Lives 

Many of you reading these words right now, may be facing struggles. Perhaps you’re dealing with addictions, harmful relationships, or negative thought patterns that have led to hopelessness or depression. You may be overwhelmed by fears or desires. You may want your fears to go away, or you may wish your desires will be fulfilled. In either case, these emotions lead to suffering. 

Life is like school. If we perform exceptionally well in our courses, we go on to graduate. But if we fail, we have to repeat our classes again. 

Life presents us big changes. Let’s say you have been returning home after work every day and drinking excessively for years. Stopping that habit will most likely require a huge amount of effort. Or if you’ve been a workaholic your entire adult life and realize the stress and anxiety are making you miserable, slowing down will probably not be easy. 

Then there are small changes. You may have persistent fears. They may be so subtle that even people who know you well may not know you have them. Slowly, you work toward letting these go. 

Regardless of whether the change we implement is big or small, as long as we maintain an open mind and continually invest time in our growth, we can continue to improve our lives until the day we die. 

Finding Purpose and Meaning in Our Lives 

No one knows for certain what happens to us after we die. For millennia, humans have developed myths and ideas that address the last stage of our lives. Near death experiences, after-death communications, and mediums have explained the afterlife. But until each of us reaches that point in our lives, we’ll not know for sure what happens. While I won’t tackle the topic of the afterlife in this post, I will present the question, “What if you or I were caught in the same endless cycle as Phil in Groundhog Day?”  

To explore this question, let’s first consider the bell curve. I’ll use measures of intelligence to describe how the bell curve works. The average IQ of people in a given population is 100. When this appears in a bell-curve graph, a line begins flat on the right side, curves upward in the center, and fall flat again. The shape of the entire graph is like a bell where the middle represents the highest number of people. In this example, the center illustrates those who have around 100 IQ. Those that have an IQ lower than 100 and above 100 are outside of the bell curve. 

I believe that if we were to measure emotional and ethical intelligence in our society, we would follow a similar bell curve. Most of us fall into the average range of emotional and ethical intelligence. On the outer extremes we would have people who have very little ethical intelligence on one end and ethical giants on the other. 

In our country, most men and women of average ethical and emotional intelligence who have their basic socioeconomic needs met probably go about their days focusing little attention on finding the answers to life’s big questions. I remember once having a conversation with a guy. Within our talk, we broached the subject of why we are here on Earth and what our purpose is. 

Indeed, many people go through their days not paying much attention to their lives. They work hard and once they arrive home, they’re just too tired to consider the significance of their existence. To seek relief, they watch TV, shop online, click through their mobile devices, or socialize. While in and of themselves, these activities may be harmless, if you’ve read this far, you’re probably more interested in increasing your emotional and ethical intelligence rather than merely falling into patterns and habits that read like the instructions on a shampoo bottle—lather, rinse, repeat.  

Viewing Our Lives within the Context of the Universe 

There’s more we don’t know than we know about the universe. What we’re certain about is that it’s been around for a really long time…to the tune of about 13.8 billion years. In addition, in the halls of academia, modern physicists have developed explanations of quantum mechanics, and one of these is called the multiverse. One broad hypothesis of this breakthrough theory is there are infinite universes besides our own. In other words, more than mere galaxies and planets, there are entire universes that go on and on into infinity, which in and of itself is a concept beyond what our human minds can grasp. So from multiverses and infinity, I’m going to take a speculative leap that will provide insight into how we can boost our ethical and emotional intelligence. 

About 10 percent of people on the planet believe that human death is the end of our life journey. Meanwhile, the majority of individuals believe our biological lives on Earth do not signal the end. While religions across the world have given this next stage various names and other people may not label it anything at all, most of us believe in the possibility that human life doesn’t end at death. 

So what if, similar to Groundhog Day, one explanation of what occurs after we pass is we repeat the cycle of life? In this way, life is like school. If we perform exceptionally well in our courses, we go on to graduate. But if we fail, we have to repeat our classes again. 

Considering the size and age of the universe, the multiverse theory, and the incomprehensibly of infinity, there is a logical possibility that, like Phil, we are provided multiple opportunities to experience events repeatedly until we master our human existence. While what I’m describing is purely conjecture, the benefit of this perspective is it adds purpose and hope to our daily lives.

When we encounter difficulties and rough patches, despondency may set in. We may feel hopeless. The events we experience and the pain we feel may seem pointless. But rather than give up, maintaining a Groundhog Day outlook encourages us to change our perspective. We are motivated to invest in growth and self-improvement because if we don’t overcome obstacles now, we will be presented the opportunity to do so later. Life and the events we’re presented have meaning. They are teachers meant to encourage us to grow. So why wait to improve our lives when we can do so in the present? 

While the struggles we’re facing at the moment may seem insurmountable, which may lead us to resignation, we can lean on the experiences of those who have come before us: historic figures and present-day people, all born with the same human body with its strengths and vulnerabilities, who have overcome obstacles and have gone on to lead happy and peaceful lives. Through their example, we know that change is possible. We can then commit to being one of these exceptional beings full of wisdom and joy. 

By taking a Groundhog Day approach to life, we cherish each moment. We are active participants in this life unfolding before us. We realize we are continually being presented opportunities to grow, find purpose and meaning, and experience peace and joy in our lives.