I was teaching positive psychology to our occupational therapy first years the other day and I began to use the classic ‘It’s a wonderful life’ to illustrate my points. I was horrified when the majority of their blank faces showed no recognition of this film I hold so dear. I couldn’t fathom how their parents had not sat them through it every Christmas as mine had done. It made me wonder what else had they missed.. Julie Andrews warbling on a hill as a nun? Captain Mannering muttering ‘stupid boy’? Oh god, had they missed the ‘ministry of silly walks’? I felt ancient and of course gave them the homework to watch the film.
‘It’s a wonderful life’ is the much loved 1947 Frank Capra classic starring the lovable Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. In this film a bumbling angel ‘Clarence Oddbody’ is sent from Heaven to help ‘George Bailey’, a desperate businessman by showing him what life would have been like if he had never existed. This is an evocative film set during the Christmas period which captures some important life lessons on love, kindness and community. The psychologist Peterson (2012) poses some provocative ideas based on this film in his book ‘Pursuing the good life’. He questions the popularity of the notion of a ‘bucket list’ where you compile a list of things you want to do before you die. He challenges the frequently assembled aspirations such as climbing Everest, Skydiving and running a marathon, asking if these really are the building blocks of a good life? If you were truly on your death bed would you look back and regret not jumping out of a plane or saying more often that you loved the people who enrich your life? More so are these exotic quests what we imagine will make us happy, imagine that these activities will make us be perceived as a more exciting person? Is it cultural and societal expectations that each of us should desire to collect unique ‘experiences’ that is pushing this trend? Author of the award winning 2012 book ‘Quiet’ by Susan Cain supports this changing trend that westernized society is dominated by the human ideal being the gregarious, chatty and sociable extrovert. She purports that we are so institutionalized into this belief that natural introverts are exhaustingly attempting to don extrovert disguises in an attempt to belong and be accepted. We’ve become a nation imbued with the skills of car sales men and women however now we are selling our selves. Is this what the bucket list has become another form of selling our ideal self? The ideal self which is shaped by our environmental landscape which tells us we need exotic adventures to be interesting and intellectually stimulating.
In ‘It’s a wonderful life’ George Baily is portrayed to deeply crave a life of exploring the globe and engaging in adventure. Instead he’s trapped by a series of situations that call on his sense of duty and higher morality to miss out of these adventures. He is painted as a man resenting his life and missing the fantasied future of his youth. It is only when angelic bumbling Clarence allows him to experience life as if he weren’t born that he gains clarity to the good life he has. His loving family, adoring wife, solid connected community he has helped build and the purpose of his work. It’s a touching moment when he is reunited with his family, as you can see in the picture and more so when the community further restore his faith with a cohesive display of appreciation when he is in need. Critics of the film scorn the films sentimentality and nostalgia however this further supports this notion that a loving home, family and a warmly connected community aren’t enough to be celebrated. Those critiques appear preposterous in the light of a growing evidence of our increasingly disconnected, unsatisfied and self orientated westernized neoliberal society. The delicious Danish art of happiness known as ‘Hygge’ celebrates all things cosy, savouring the small moments in our every day lives and creating opportunities for sharing, togetherness. The Danish would consider ‘It’s a wonderful life’ to be a very ‘Hygge’ film also known as ‘Hyggeligste’, more so if watched with loved ones under shared blankets, near a roaring fire and with heavy rain outside the window. More on ‘Hygge’ in another blog however.
Mary Bailey, the wife, is an integral character in the film, however more so in the background as the protagonist for tying George to this seemingly hum drum, less appealing life. In my mind there is another learning from this film and that is the appreciation of the people who support us so fully, often not considering their own needs. It would be easy to overlook Mary in this film as inconsequential but in fact she proffered their honeymoon money and instigated the town to contribute to his plight. It would be interesting to see the film if she hadn’t existed, it is so easy to miss the important roles people play in our lives if we are focused on the life we think we should want. Who are the ‘Marys’ in your life? Psychologist Seligman (2011) promotes gratitude practice in his book ‘Flourish’ particularly the journaling of 3 blessings daily. Interestingly he found that there was a further greater impact when in addition to noting these reasons to be grateful, the person also imagined their lives without this. Truly its a wonderful life activity.
Impact bias is an interesting, much researched phenomena which demonstrates that we are unable to accurately predict the effect of an anticipated event in our life. This is true for both pleasurable and unappealing events or circumstances. We predict negative life events will have more effect than they do actually create and the opposite with positive life events. Hence why psychologist Lyubomirsky (2010) in her book ‘The how of happiness’ only credits our circumstances with a 10% influence on our happiness levels compared with 40% our of voluntary activities. So surely the voluntary activities, the activities we chose to do need to be wisely considered. I believe in collecting moments not things, however I want my bucket list of moments to be full of more subtle, wonderful life moments.
I hope this has been helpful and until next time.. have a wonderful life.