The Positive Psychology Movie Awards of 2015
by Ryan M. Niemiec
February 22, 2016

Each year, I review a wide range of movies, studying them for their portrayal of core themes in positive psychology. Why? Because professors, counselors, coaches, and consumers regularly report the benefits of using movies as a lens for educating, for gaining insight, for re-conceptualizing problems, for instilling hope, and for self-growth. In fact, a study published this year found that viewing positive psychology movies led to an increase in positive characteristics and positive behaviors.


Now in its 7th year, I’m happy to highlight some terrific films from 2015 that reflect core themes in positive psychology.





Award for Best Positive Psychology Movie: The Peanuts Movie While this pick might surprise some people, watch this film with a lens of positive psychology. The film directly identifies Charlie Brown’s expression of several character strengths, namely humor, bravery, kindness, and perseverance, all to support the meta-strength of love. True to research in positive psychology, Charlie Brown exhibits character strengths blindness and low self-esteem, and it takes other characters to engage in strengths-spotting before he improves his self-understanding. Themes of achievement, positive relationships, and meaning are readily on display.




Award for Positive Relationships: 45 Years
A couple, about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary, encounters a unique challenge they must overcome. The film displays positive aging, relationship imperfections, and continual relationship growth rather than stagnancy. It would be difficult for any viewer of any age to watch this film and not wonder about one’s own long-term relationship and reflect on it in the context of many years (or decades) down the line.




Award for Heroism: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
The long-awaited film (and already the 3rd highest-grossing film in box office history) not only did not disappoint but enthralled most viewers and critics. True to the work of modern mythologist Joseph Campbell, the hero’s journey motif, and the previous Star Wars films, this installment depicts new heroes and old heroes expressing bravery, compassion, integrity, perseverance, and hope as they transform themselves and battle the dark side.




Award for Signature Strengths Use: Concussion
Unquestionably, one of the year’s best films from the perspective of story, acting, and using one’s strengths to make a difference in the world. A pathologist, Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), makes a medical discovery of football-related brain trauma and the long-term negative effects. Omalu displays psychological and moral courage, perseverance, integrity, judgment, and kindness in exemplary ways. It is this constellation of his best qualities that helps him challenge one of the biggest systems in the world – the NFL.




Award for Hope: The Martian
In an unthinkable situation in which no person in history has ever encountered, an astronaut (Matt Damon) becomes trapped on the planet Mars. With no one to turn to for support or problem-solving he is left with nothing but his character strengths and talents to not only survive but to find a way to make contact with Earth. It is hope the fuels him, helps him face constant adversity, and allows him to stay optimistic despite the horrifying reality of his situation.




Award for Resilience (long-term): Room
A young woman stands strong through devastating circumstances of being kidnapped as a teenager, raped daily by her kidnapper, and kept imprisoned in a small room for 7 years, the last 5 with her son who was born in the room. Later, when she is no longer in the room, she must adapt to a new world and new life. She displays enormous coping resources and personal strength, especially in dealing with significant post-trauma psychological effects as she simultaneously tries to pick up the pieces of her shattered life and maintain care for her son.




Awards for Resilience (short-term): The Revenant and The 33
The film title of the former means “the return.” Left for dead after a brutal bear attack, a frontiersman (Leonardo DiCaprio) fights to survive natural elements and betrayal by one of his men. He is driven forward by advice from his father who once told him “As long as you can grab a breath, you fight, you breathe. You keep breathing.”

The latter film title refers to the true story of 33 Chilean miners trapped deep in a mountain. The men form not only a team but a brotherhood that helps them outlast all the prognostications in regard to their unlikely survival.




Award for Achievement/Accomplishment: Joy
A divorced woman, stuck in the sandwich generation caring for family members older and younger than she is, breaks from the monotony of her life and taps into the creativity she displayed as a child. Based on the real-life story of Joy Mangano and her achievements, her belief in herself and her creations are something for viewers to marvel at and emulate.




Award for the Psychology of Choice (Freedom): The Experimenter
There were two films in 2015 that depicted two of the most famous and high impact social psychology experiments in history, Philip Zimbardo’s prison experiment and Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiment. It is the latter film that shows subjects engaging in an agentic state (defying authority and showing compassion for others). It also raises many questions about the nature of humanity, challenges viewers to see both the pros and cons of the experiment, and draws links to everyday life alluding to how everyone is a “puppet” obeying a puppeteer to some degree.




Award for Teamwork: Spotlight
Portrays the “spotlight team” of the Boston Globe that broke the story of the Catholic Church’s systematic cover-up of the sexual abuse of children/adolescents by priests. It is ingenuity and collaborative teamwork that leads to their success. Viewers will see how different character strengths are aligned with different team functions/roles and how each team member uniquely rises to the occasion when needed to take initiative, to lead, to investigate, and to challenge.




Award for Mindfulness: Anomalisa
In perhaps the most creative film of the year, Anomalisa is a unique animation from the quizzical mind of director/writer Charlie Kaufman, about a man lost in automatic pilot and monotony. He is shaken out (temporarily) by a naïve woman who raises his curiosity and moves him emotionally. She is his mindfulness catalyst. However, as is common for people who engage in mindfulness, he quickly returns to unawareness.




Award for Engagement: Circle
Fascinating independent film in which a random group of people find themselves part of an experiment in which they are standing in a circle they cannot move from and one person is killed off every couple of minutes. They must figure how why this is happening and if it can be stopped. Themes of morality around decision-making, end of life, stereotyping, betrayal, trust, and manipulation are striking. This is a mysterious and stark film (filmed almost entirely in one room), and one thing is certain – the viewer is fully engaged throughout, as is every single character, because their life depends on it!




Award for Positive Emotions: Inside Out
One of the most popular positive psychology movies across audiences is this animated feature that highlights age-old adages of psychology/clinical psychology – that there is great value in our afflictive emotions (e.g., anger, fear, sadness), that we often feel a mixture/combination of emotions, and that it’s important to express our emotions directly. Unfortunately, the film depicts the standard imbalance found in traditional psychology – the underplaying of the positive, as there is only 1 positive emotion characterized (i.e., Joy), and 4 afflictive/negative emotions characterized.

Honorable Mention Awards