Learning life lessons through the power of cinema

Life lessons. We’re never too old to learn them. When elderly Sisters at Immaculate Heart Convent sit down to watch movies it’s not just for entertainment. They delve into the life lessons to be learned from them. The Sisters use film as a way to find meaning and to learn about virtues and character strengths. They watch movies to be inspired by courage, humility and other positive values.

Learning life lessons frame by frame

life lessons
Sr. Dorothy Vogel watches a movie with a critical eye.

With this in mind, it’s not hard to see why the Sisters have been engaged for more than a year in a monthly program called “Positive Psychology at the Movies.” The program is based on a book by the same title. The book’s co-author Ryan Niemiec says that movies, more than any other art-form, capture the human spirit: what it means to live fully, to be resilient, to embrace what’s best in us. He says, “In short, positive psychology movies reflect and help us unleash our common humanity.”

Niemiec believes that by really paying attention to the characters in a film we can learn a lot about ourselves and others.

“Once we know how to look for it, we can discover our own lives playing out in film, frame by frame,” he says.

As for the Sisters, they choose which emotions they want to explore and then watch a corresponding movie. After watching the film they discuss how the movie portrays the principles of positive psychology, especially character strengths.

Dr. Barbara Dripps, PhD and clinical psychologist with St. Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute, presides over the film discussions. She asks the Sisters to watch the films mindfully, with an eye on character strengths and well-being, rather than watching the movie passively for the sole purpose of entertainment. Her goal is for Sisters to take lessons from the movies and apply them to better understand their own lives and the lives of others.

She highlights the film’s salience of wisdom and knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, forgiveness, temperance and transcendence to keep the Sisters invigorated in the stories and inspired by the characters.

Using critical thinking to analyze life lessons

Dr. Dripps facilitates a process that is outlined in the book Positive Psychology at the Movies. Using this formula allows the Sisters to explore emotions, actions, habits and attitudes of the film’s characters. Dr. Dripps prompts critical thinking to help Sisters spot the silver linings and dark clouds by asking questions such as:

  • What positive psychology themes did you see in the film?
  • What does this movie teach you about the human condition?
  • What strengths did the characters exhibit? What combination of strengths stood out for you?
  • How do the characters in the film live a life of relationship and/or meaning?
life lessons
Classification of character strengths and values as presented in the book Positive Psychology at the Movies.

Niemiec believes the greatest struggle of our times is our confrontation with horror. The horror of violence, terror, torture, slaughter of the innocent, poverty, hopelessness, despair and more. Niemiec says positive psychology offers hope in this confrontation.

“Positive psychology movies show what is best about people and can strengthen us in our attempts to make the world a better place and ourselves better people,” Niemiec says.

Watching movies for personal growth

Sr. Pauline Bilbrough, Local Leader at Immaculate Heart, said she strives to provide Sisters with unique and positive experiences that stretch their imaginations and cause them to think critically.

Sr. Pauline also uses feature films, documentaries and other media art forms to help Sisters with ongoing formation. For example, the Sisters watch a science movie every Monday and a spiritual film each Tuesday. The Sisters engage in faith sharing on Thursday and watch a fun movie of choice each Sunday at 1 p.m., with no expectation of critique.

Jeanette McDermott

Jeanette McDermott

Jeanette is the Communications Coordinator for Sisters of the Good Shepherd Province of Mid-North America. She is a career photojournalist who has served in various capacities of print, broadcast, and corporate communications. Jeanette is devoted to creation and is particularly focused on saving pollinators and other wildlife species and their habitat. She is an ethical vegan and created the website veganstoryteller.com