Movies As Therapy/The Psychology of Movies

Skip Dine Young, a professor and clinical psychologist, states in Psychology at the Movies, “All movies are psychologically alive, exploding with human drama. This drama can be seen from many different angles—in the movies themselves, in the people who make them, and in the people who watch them” (Psychology Today). He sees movies as therapy of sorts, “equipment for living.”

And, as Steve Martin once said, “You know what your problem is, it’s that you haven’t seen enough movies — all of life’s riddles are answered in the movies.”

Films are so good at bringing out various emotions, they can be used as adjuncts in therapy. One professional who actually specializes in movies as therapy is Dr. Birgit Wolz, who wrote E-Motion Picture Magic: A Movie Lover’s Guide to Healing and Transformation (2004).

She conceptualizes three types of cinema therapy:

  1. Evocative: when a client raises the topic of having seen a certain film, Wolz can look at what the characters or scenes evoke in him or her
  2. Prescriptive: based on a client’s presenting problems, a certain movie may be prescribed as a learning tool
  3. Cathartic: when a certain film enables a client with blocked emotions to laugh or cry or both

Her website offers lots of good stuff, including special articles and links, movie reviews, and a list of films organized by the types of issues they represent. Likewise, you can click on the Zur Institute website for a comprehensive film list offered jointly by Wolz and psychologist Dr. Ofer Zur.

Therapist Enzo Sinisi at also offers a long list of mental health-related films.

The book Positive Psychology at the Movies (updated 2013) by Ryan M. Niemiec and Danny Wedding is a resource for those who want to learn more about the field of positive psychology‘s view of character strengths and virtues (see previous post “A Good Life“) via film.

Another related phenomenon to the psychology of movies is the “sadfilm paradox”—when we value but don’t exactly “enjoy” certain films. Examples given by writer Sharon Jayson that fit this category are Hotel Rwanda and Schindler’s List

Others I can readily name include The Fault in Our Stars, Boyhood, Selma, Life Is Beautiful, and Terms of Endearment. And of course there are many more.

A study led by Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, a communications professor at Ohio State, monitored the feelings of people who watched one particular “sadfilm,” Atonement, a story about the long-lasting effects of a teenager’s wrongheaded and serious accusation against a young man. Why did viewers, including myself, so like this movie? According to the study, sadness “instigates life reflection.” Life reflection leads to greater appreciation of your own relationships. Greater appreciation of your close relationships leads to increased happiness.

Mary Beth Oliver, Penn State, conducted a different but related study about the sad-film paradox. She “argues that a key part of meaningful entertainment is that it elicits a sense of elevation, or the warm sentiment we feel when we witness acts of moral beauty or characters who embody moral virtues. People flock to sad stories not for the sadness, Oliver says, but to experience these feel-good moments that sadness brings out” (Sam McNerney, Big Think).

“Elevation” involves not only happiness but also such feelings as being “moved” and having a desire to help others.

So, to recap. Sad films—a path to happiness. Films in general–self-awareness, various emotions, and learning about life.

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