What is it that really makes us happy? A plethora of research studies have attempted to reveal the science behind happiness. One of the most popular ways of pursuing happiness is by watching a movie or television show. Upbeat movies and TV shows are often marketed to us with the promise of making us happy — at least for the time we spend watching them.
Hollywood is in the happiness business. Many entertainment productions are specifically designed to try to make us happy. But do they actually do so? I studied what research reveals and toured some Hollywood movie and TV studios to learn more.
Being truly happy means experiencing joy — not just a temporary sense of pleasure, but a lasting sense of fulfillment that runs deeper in the soul. Ultimately, joy comes from being in a relationship with God. That’s the source of it. But there are many different ways we can open the gifts God gives us in our daily lives to experience more of that joy (and feel more happy in the process). There are also many ways we try to pursue happiness that don’t deliver the results we’re seeking.
Watching TV and movies seems to be one of those ways we hope we’ll find more happiness, only to be disappointed.
While in Hollywood, I toured two major studios: Paramount and Warner Brothers. Together, these industry behemoths produce lots of popular content that people watch for a quick fix of happy feelings. Both companies have long histories of producing popular comedies (from Paramount’s classic “Road to…” movies with comedian Bob Hope to Warner Brothers’ popular Looney Tunes cartoons) as well as other popular, upbeat productions like musicals and adventures. Both studios also continue to produce entertainment designed for happy escapism today — from Paramount’s Star Trek science fiction franchise to Warner Brothers’ superhero shows.
So how does Hollywood aim to make us happy? By immersing us in stories that touch our emotions. From the writers and designers to the directors and actors, everyone who works on a movie or TV show tries to create a world that seems real to us when we watch it. They want us to connect emotionally to the plot and characters in ways that make us feel good. If they succeed, they make good art — and often, lots of money as well.
Good entertainment is a good way to lift our moods temporarily. And if our entertainment is inspiring, it can influence us to think in positive ways, which leads us in the direction of other choices that actually do promote lasting happiness. My young adult novel Dream Factory describes how people in Hollywood’s golden age tried to do exactly that. They often succeeded, I think, and so do those who work on today’s inspirational shows.
But overall, we don’t get happier from simply watching a movie or a TV show.
Entertainment on a screen — even in productions with the most feel-good elements — doesn’t appear to increase lasting happiness much, despite the fact that so many people turn to Hollywood entertainment to for a dose of happiness. In fact, if we watch too much TV or too many movies, we can actually become less happy.
A University of Milan research study of whether or not watching TV led to more happiness concluded in 2009 that “high levels of television consumption are negatively related to individual life satisfaction.” Not only did TV watching fail to increase people’s happiness, but the more they watched TV, the less happy they became. Those who watched 2 1/2 hours or more of television per day reported the lowest levels of happiness.
Still, we often do experience happy feelings while enjoying a good TV show or movie. Just reflect on how you felt when you watched the latest fun, creative dances on “Dancing with the Stars” or saw a film with an inspiring story, like The King’s Speech. Hollywood entertainment can make us temporarily happy.
So the key seems to be figuring out how to use these experiences we love of watching TV and movies (in moderation) well — to translate the fleeting happy feelings they give us into mindfulness that can lead to greater lasting happiness. Rather than just experiencing positive emotions in front of a screen and then ignoring the experience afterward, we could reflect on the works of art we’ve just seen on TV or on the movie theater. We could discuss what we’ve seen with others. We could think and pray about the show or film’s message. We could respond to it in practical ways by changing something in our lives for the better.
If we let our entertainment lead us to think and act in positive ways, then it can bring more than just temporary happy feelings our way.