October 11, 2016 JV

Why do Feel-Good movies make you feel good?

its-a-wonderful-lifeHave you ever wondered why “Feel Good” movies make you feel good?  Do you remember how Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey struggles with meaning and purpose in Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life?” As he’s about to commit suicide, Clarence (the guardian angel) shows George all the lives he has touched and how different life in his community of Bedford Falls would be had he never been born.  Seeing the dark alternate universe that would have been without George’s self-less actions, he begs for his old life back.  George runs back to his family wishing everyone a joyous Christmas and the community rally around him, donating the missing money and teaching him that “no man is a failure who has friends.”  It’s my favourite Christmas film.  It gives me a warm feeling just thinking about it now and it’s been years since I saw it last.

This article is not intended to be a movie review; rather, a closer look at the power of a positive memory enveloped in a good feeling, achieving a positive end.  Its purpose adds further weight to the importance of engaging stakeholders with the assistance of emotions, not just cognitively and behaviourally as discussed recently in: https://jvpienew.wpenginepowered.com/rules-of-engagement/.  When I say good, I’m actually invoking an ontic referent, an external absolute, as I frankly struggle with the notion of “good” being determined either socially, culturally or democratically.  More on this later.

A few weeks ago, I watched a movie documentary titled “Batkid Begins” about a five-year-old leukaemia-fighter Miles Scott and how a Make-A-Wish idea went viral.  On November 15, 2013, the city of San Francisco became Gotham City in the eyes of young Miles.  He loved Batman and wanted to meet him – that was his Make-A-Wish.  However, the basic “Wish” script kept being rewritten and the plot rethickened as social media took hold.  It was a text-book case of Gladwell’s “Tipping Point” in action as people rallied around the self-less idea of giving a young, sick child a great memory.

What intrigued me about the film was the back-story, not of Miles or the main characters (who did a fantastic thing) but the large crowd of people on the periphery.  It wasn’t that they volunteered so much of thbatkid-beginseir time and resources to this cause.  Rather, it was the way they acted toward the organisers and each other.  Was it the worthiest cause in the world – no.  Was Miles the sickest child – by no means.  In fact, thousands of children are daily afflicted with worse diseases and unlike Miles, most of them die.  Despite this, thousands of SF’s locals converged and many others flew in just to take part; they decided to practice the Royal Law, for no apparently great reason.

Throughout the film, some notable things occurred in the background.  Thousands of people made signs, dressed up, danced for and cheered on the diminutive super-hero.  One of the characters, a young damsel in distress left her jacket and phone on the side of the street while she was strapped to a fake bomb on cable car tracks.  She commented that it took way longer than she thought and a massive crowd engulfed her.  As she lost sight of her possessions, she resigned herself to losing them to theft.   Amazingly, when the crowd cleared, her jacket and phone were just where she’d left them.  Later, a policeman commented on how the crowd worked as one to clear a path when asked to move back.  Crowds don’t do that without force or threat.  Who’d have thunk it?

So why do such films make us feel good and why does it make a lasting impression?  I’d like to argue that it’s because they tap into universal truths about what is good and right and what ought to be done.  They strike a chord with the deepest part of humanity; the part where science has no say.  Contrast the feel good films with the salacious fare that focus on sex, drugs and violence.  They may titillate for a time, but they always leave the viewer empty.  Who has ever recalled a scene from “Chainsaw Massacre” with fond emotions?

Help me JV, what’s the application here?  When people are effectively engaged into a cause that has intrinsic value, they will go to great lengths to support it.  Business leaders wonder why their staff can be so blasé about the company vision to increase shareholder returns.  However, there’s no stopping an organisation with a well-conceived, self-less core ideology that aligns with the deep values of its key stakeholders.

Tennyson tells us that nature is “red in tooth and claw.”  Dawkins adds that “DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.”  If we truly believe in naturalism – that we evolved from non-moral beasts by an amoral process which did not have us in mind and which has no purpose or ultimate meaning, then why do we think in moral terms?  Why do we delight in supporting a sickly five-year old who adds no value to the collective gene-pool while shuddering at the holocaust?  Our deepest feelings seem to contradict what classroom science is teaching.  Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, methinks.

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