March 4, 2024

You could have a pang of guilt when you decide to watch a movie at the end of the day since you really need to be reading your child a bedtime tale or responding to emails from work. While you watch, you should, at the absolute least, be folding laundry or doing something else constructive.

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If this describes you, you’ll be glad to hear that there are some unanticipated advantages to seeing a movie: Psychologists believe that watching movies may help us develop our talents and improve as individuals.

The practice of utilizing films as a supplement to psychotherapy, or cinematherapy, has been around for a while. It is used to treat mental health issues, to promote introspection, or to increase empathy, among other things. Movies may be great sources of inspiration, if you have ever experienced the feeling that everything is possible after viewing one.

However, how do movies motivate us, and how can we make the most of them? The answers to these questions have been studied by psychologists, and you might find them useful the next time you cozy up on the sofa for movie night.

How movies affect us

Psychologist Ryan M. Niemiec explores in a 2020 study how movies might be used by therapists to help us cultivate our finest qualities—“character strengths” such as courage, generosity, creativity, curiosity, optimism, caution, persistence, and forgiveness.

He clarifies that in cinematherapy, a therapist suggests a film that touches on a subject the patient is going with. Sometimes the client and the therapist watch the film together and talk about how it relates to the client’s life. According to Niemiec, “cinematherapy is a useful tool and adjunct to treatment; at best, it can be a major catalyst for change in psychotherapy.”

Using cinematherapy, the therapist selects films that highlight one or more character strengths in order to particularly treat character strengths.

How can we develop and get better when we witness character qualities in movies? Niemiec identifies two factors at work here: elevation and appreciation.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt first defined the emotion of elevation as the pleasant, uplifted sensation one has from witnessing moral excellence—unexpected deeds of kindness, generosity, courage, or compassion. In addition, a person may experience shivers, a pleasant tingling sensation in their chest, and feelings of love or adoration for the individual doing the morally beautiful deed. Elevation encourages altruistic actions, such as volunteering and charity giving.

Niemiec proposes that when we see moral greatness in films, we go through the same thing.

Elevation is our response to the presentation of moral perfection; adoration is the response to other kinds of greatness, such as reading the life story of a visionary inventor or witnessing an Olympic athlete compete. In daily life, appreciation is a feeling that inspires self-improvement and is felt when one witnesses impressive demonstrations of abilities, accomplishments, or talents. The study goes on to say that when we experience it while viewing movies, we may get comparable physiological feelings like shivers and enthusiasm and be “motivated to improve oneself or copy the model.”

According to Niemiec, when we see a character use a strength, it elicits a variety of emotions as well as a sense of empathy and connection. This may inspire us to make life-improving decisions for ourselves.

Consider how this functions outside of the camera, such as in a mentor-mentee dynamic you have experienced. When we look up to someone, we feel a connection to them and desire to be like them.

Drawing on his experiences facilitating film discussion groups, Niemiec provides instances of what individuals have done when they have experienced a strong emotional connection to a character: In A Better Life, a woman reconciled with her estranged son after seeing forgiveness in action. A second person showed generosity after seeing Amelie. Inspired by traits like tenacity, boldness, and self-control, people were extremely productive at work (after Inception), overcame social anxiety and went to events they would not have gone to (after Batman Begins), and adopted a vegetarian diet (after All Is Quiet on the Western Front).

How to draw inspiration from movies

Niemiec’s research examines how therapists might assist patients in developing their character qualities via the use of movies. However, we may also apply cinematherapy approaches to our personal situations.

“Outside the therapist’s office, cinematherapy can also help you to feel better, to learn more about yourself, and to learn new ways to grow and heal,” according to psychotherapist Birgit Wolzs. Here are a few pointers.