In an earlier post, I discussed how Cinema therapy can help reinforce couples and individual therapy. 

Now a new study from Ohio State University suggests that certain films-“meaningful movies” (those which arouse empathy and compassion), can help rewire the brain into greater resilience and more aspirational behavior. 

It seems that watching meaningful movies helps shape us to become better human beings.

The research also suggests that some people will choose a serious film with a wide range of emotions over popcorn fare ( long on action, short on meaning) because they’re looking for just such an emotional stretch.

Meaningful movies have more eudaimonia

More what?

A basic rule of research is to always strive toward incomprehensibility...why use a word we all can understand? I will spare you a detour to the dictionary.

Eudaimonia: "The good composed of all goods; an ability which suffices for living well; perfection in respect of virtue; resources sufficient for a living creature."

The researchers called films ranked as either “more eudaimonic”(more meaningful movies),” or “less eudaimonic” (less meaningful movies).

When the participants watched meaningful movies, they were better able to pursue more relational goals, and increase their acceptance of the human condition.

Meaningful movies evoke feelings of transcendence, empathy, across a broad emotional range, but the receptivity and mental state of the viewer were also critical factors.

Researchers found that when the study participants recalled watching meaningful films such as “Slumdog Millionaire” or “Shawshank Redemption” they described experiencing a range of positive emotions, such as feeling more empowered to grapple with the human condition and to engage more deeply with the people they care about.

"Meaningful movies actually help people cope with difficulties in their own lives, and help them want to pursue more significant goals," said Jared Ott, lead author of the study and a graduate student in communication at The Ohio State University.

Some studies have looked at how subjects react to watching meaningful films or clips from films in a laboratory setting.

But like Ron Rogge’s research with couples, this research was designed to see how these films affect people in the real world, said Michael Slater, professor of communication at Ohio State, and the study’s co-author.

"We wanted to find out how people experience these movies in their everyday lives," Slater said. "There hasn't been much research on that."

How the study was designed

The study involved about 1100 adults who were recruited online. The study subjects were selected randomly and received either the list of meaningful movies or the list of less meaningful movies.

The participants were asked to tell researchers which movies they had watched. 

One of the films they had seen previously was then randomly selected for each subject, who responded to the rest of the survey in relation to that particular movie.

The survey asked a variety of questions about how each participant reacted to the movie that was chosen for their viewing pleasure.

How meaningful movies lift our spirits

meaningful movies

Results showed that people who recalled a meaningful movie were more likely than the others to say the film helped them hold a different perspective on their problems and the meaning of suffering.

Some viewers reported that after watching a meaningful movie they "feel like struggles in life are for a reason" and they can "more easily handle difficult situations with grace and courage."

Meaningful movies were also more likely than popcorn movies to help viewers accept the human condition, results showed. 

Study subjects reported that meaningful movies left them with the feeling that "both happy and sad experiences give meaning to our life" and "gains and losses are part of life," as well as other similarly resilient comments.

What is particularly interesting is how a meaningful movie can stretch our sense of self. 

A number of study subjects said that meaningful films motivated them to become better human beings, become more altruistic toward others, and search for meaning at a deeper level.

Man’s search for meaningful movies...

The researchers created two lists of 20 Hollywood films, a list of more meaningful movies, and a list of less meaningful films. The films were widely popular and were all released after 1985. 

Some meaningful movies, such as Schindler's List, and Slumdog Millionaire, were described by movie-lovers on the website IMDB  using descriptive words such as inspiring, deep, meaningful, and poignant.

The researchers created an alternative list of popular films made around the same time and with similar MPAA ratings (G, PG, R) 

The difference was that the movie lovers reviewing these films on the IMDB website did not use the same adjectives used to describe “more meaningful movies”.

The movies used in the study

The 20 meaningful movies...

  • The Shawshank Redemption
  • Forrest Gump
  • Up
  • The Pursuit of Happyness
  • Into the Wild
  • The Green Mile
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
  • Schindler's List
  • A Beautiful Mind
  • The Pianist
  • Slumdog Millionaire
  • Gran Torino
  • Rain Man
  • Good Will Hunting
  • Saving Private Ryan
  • Dead Poet's Society
  • Braveheart
  • Hotel Rwanda
  • Million Dollar Baby
  • Gladiator

The 20 less meaningful movies...

  • Pulp Fiction
  • Casino
  • Blood Diamond
  • The Departed
  • The Big Lebowski
  • Mystic River
  • The Usual Suspects
  • Catch Me if You Can
  • Snatch
  • There Will Be Blood
  • No Country for Old Men
  • Crimes and Misdemeanors
  • Trainspotting
  • LA Confidential
  • The Princess Bride
  • Se7en
  • V for Vendetta
  • Sin City
  • Fight Club
  • Ratatouille

Meaning is often in the eye of the beholder

How did meaningful movies change the brain of viewers? The research showed that the essential elements of meaningful movies were the admixture of sadness and happiness; the poignancy and emotional range; and inspirational themes.

Overall, the meaningful movies on the list did have more overall positive effects than the less meaningful movies.

Popcorn movies don’t often evoke deep emotions or rouse significant goals

While research showed some viewers even found meaning in less serious films, the study subjects reported fewer positive emotions when they watched more straightforward entertainments such as “Pulp Fiction.”

Those positive experiences were also less likely to be reported when people remembered watching other popular popcorn flicks such as “Fight Club” or “Sin City.”

What kind of meaningful movie are you in the mood for?

I found this next part really interesting. The researchers asked the study subjects to choose as many as 3 values from a list of 16 that they had seen depicted in the movie they were asked to discuss.

Some of those values included "courage and bravery," "achievement and personal success," and of course," love and intimacy." 

The viewers then rated the personal significance that each value has to them at this point in time.

"We found that people felt better able to make sense of difficulties in their own life when they recalled a movie that focused on values that were important to them," Slater said.

Slater went on to point out that this sometimes happened even when the movie was classified as “less meaningful." 

Many meaningful movies, it seems, are viewed by prepared minds.

The research suggests that many people see movies as a more complex emotional experience than simple entertainment.

"Some films may help people cope and grow through difficult periods in their life," Slater said. "And people may recognize this effect years after they have seen a particular movie."

Final thoughts about meaningful movies and the new normal

Whenever therapists find something that works, we want to have a sense of how long the positive effect will last. 

That’s the curious thing about meaningful movies. We already know.

We don’t need a researcher to tell us that the impact of a meaningful movie can linger in our minds and hearts for years afterward.

The legendary French director François Truffaut once said that he loved to walk to the front of a movie theatre, turn around, and look back into the faces of the audience turned up to the light from the screen. 

Truffaut believed that if the film is any good, those faces should reflect a kind of trance. It was, to him, an inspiring sight.

While watching meaningful movies, the audience collaborates en masse in being somewhere else in space and time, and becoming preoccupied with artfully presented lives and challenges that are decidedly not their own. 

Of all the human arts, meaningful movies offer the most powerful and immediate boost to empathy and can even shape us into becoming better people.

We’ve all been stretched and challenged by empathetic entanglements with film characters. Cinema is a unique art form with a powerful therapeutic lens.

And now we know from this research that not only can movies be meaningful, but so can human beings in pursuit of cinematherapy.

We live in a box of space and time. Movies are windows in its walls. They allow us to enter other minds, not simply in the sense of identifying with the characters, although that is an important part of it... but by seeing the world as another person sees it. Roger Ebert.


Jared M. Ott et al, Eudaimonic Media in Lived Experience: Retrospective Responses to Eudaimonic vs. Non-Eudaimonic Films, Mass Communication and Society (2021). DOI: 10.100/15205436.2021.1912774 Journal information: Mass Communication and Society

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Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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