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Shrinking with the Stars–It’s a Wonderful Life

Yes you have heard of Dancing With the Stars but today I will start a new feature of my blog that I am calling Shrinking With the Stars.  It’s a place where I will not get smaller but will act as a ‘shrink’ and look at movies or TV shows from a psychological perspective.  The arts provide a multitude of examples of psychological mishaps and successes.  And we will start off the series with one of my all-time favorite movies It’s a Wonderful Life.
There are people in my life who have nothing but disdain for It’s a Wonderful Life.  They shall remain nameless so as not to incur the wrath of the many who like me can’t get enough of this holiday classic.  In my opinion there is much to love about this movie but for the sake of this blogpost I will focus on why this movie speaks to me as therapist.  There are four themes in this movie which I think speak to psychological health and they are appreciation, forgiveness, success and resilience.

Maybe what I love most about this movie is how it reinforces the idea of appreciation.

Our hero George Bailey is worn down by the pressures and stresses of life.  He had big dreams which didn’t come to pass; the big man in town Mr. Potter is breathing down his neck, trying to ruin him; he has a sick kid, an old house in need of repair; and now his eccentric uncle has lost a bank deposit of 8 thousand dollars which is causing a crisis of threatened bankruptcy and fraud.  He has lost sight of the meaning in his life and can only see the problems.  He is about to end his life but instead is given a chance to see what the world would have been like if he had never been born.  During this review he is able to connect to all the ways his life does matter and all the lives he changed for the better.  This truly renews his sense of gratefulness about the important things in his life and he returns to his family with a deep appreciation for them and his life.  My old pal, relationship expert John Gottman, talks about how important it’s for couples to create a culture of appreciation in their relationships.  I often ask couples to find three things a day to thank or appreciate about their partner.  It’s so easy to focus with a shining intensity the things we don’t like but the ability to appreciate and be grateful has been shown to improve relationships and one’s own sense of well-being.

Another quality I find in It’s a Wonderful Life is forgiveness.

The characters in the movie are flawed human beings.  A particularly difficult scene by today’s standards is the scene with young George and his boss Mr. Gower.  Mr. Gower has learned that his son died in the war and he’s been drowning his sorrow in alcohol when George comes in.  He watches Mr. Gower accidentally fill medicine capsules with poison and tells George to deliver it.  When he finds out that George did not deliver the pills he starts berating him and slapping him on the face.  When George explains that Mr. Gower accidentally used poison Mr. Gower hugs him in relief and as they cry George says, “I know you didn’t mean to do it Mr. Gower, you were upset because you got the telegram.  I’ll never tell anybody.”  The film goes on to show that their relationship went on for years after this incident and this was put behind them.  Now, I don’t advocate hitting children of course but these were different times and I like these characters working it out and not just cutting off the relationship.  Another example of forgiveness is when George runs off to save the Building and Loan with his honeymoon money.  Some wives, maybe even this one, would be miserable about this.  But not Mary–she dresses up the ramshackle house and cooks a chicken using a record player.  She gets big points for creativity but also for forgiveness.  She knows George and his heart and she understands that he made the choice he did based on his values and so she can forgive him.  There’s a great book called Forgive for Good, by Dr. Frederic Luskin, which teaches people how to forgive and explains how forgiveness has been shown to reduce depression and stress and can lead to greater feelings of hope, compassion and self-confidence.

The question, ‘what is true success?’ is also addressed in the movie.

We see George as a young man dreaming of becoming an explorer or an urban developer.  He has big ideas for his future and when his dad asks him to join the family business he looks like he may vomit saying he feels he will burst if he doesn’t get out of his hometown.  His circumstances and values lead him to stay in the town and take on the family business after all.  He puts his brother through college, he watches a friend go strike it rich and has to put up with the very wealthy and powerful Mr. Potter busting his chops at every turn, threatening to shut down the Building and Loan.  None of his ambitions for life pan out.  But he does get the best girl in town and they build a life near family and friends and have children of their own.  He comes to realize that by being a good man and helping people own their own homes at reasonable costs that he has in fact earned the respect and good will of the people around him.  They appreciate him and in his hour of need they come out of the woodwork to help him.  His life had great meaning and he was able to touch and impact many lives and he comes to see that this is really the best measure of success.  That is a good lesson in our modern times.

The last quality I want to talk about in It’s a Wonderful Life is resilience.

George Bailey is suicidal in a bad moment in his life.  He has lost hope and his sense of value and purpose.  Out of this bad moment he almost makes a terrible decision to end his life.  Two things help him out of this: the first is his care for others.  He doesn’t care about his own life in his darkest moment but he can still connect to trying to help someone else.  Isn’t this important to never lose sight of?  We matter to other people in ways we might not even understand.  Our loss would leave a terrible void to people who care about us.  So we must dig deep in our dark moments and hang on to life if not for ourselves then maybe for someone else.  The second thing that saves George is what saves us all: we are resilient.  Feelings are temporary.  As bad as they may be they are temporary.  We truly do not know how life may change.  We do not know how our perspectives may change either by a guardian angel like Clarence or by getting treatment for our depression, or by connecting with a friend or loved one.  I have seen people in the depths of suicidal despair live to experience joy again.  The key is to be resilient and hang in there.  Realize that others before you have weathered dark times and have come out on the other side.  George Bailey may be a fictional character but his change in perspective and his resilience are a real part of the human experience.  Perhaps that is why we empathize and care about George Bailey and return to this movie every year at Christmas time.

I wish you all a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and a New Year filled with happiness and growth!

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