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Avoid these common media mistakes about what makes you happy

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Tom Hoopes - published on 10/19/22

We love stories, but for good or bad, they will affect us.

We are obsessed with stories — it almost doesn’t matter what kind: celebrity stories, bingeable streaming series, reality TV, and YouTubers sharing their lives. 

Pope Francis explains why. “Human beings are storytellers. From childhood we hunger for stories just as we hunger for food,” he said.

But he warned, “Stories influence our lives, whether in the form of fairy tales, novels, films, songs, news, even if we do not always realize it.” They can help; us or they can hurt us, he said. 

I wrote about the glamor of evil and mistakes about God. Here are some lies stories tell about what makes us happy.

First: Many stories tell us that “Hubris wins the day.”

In old stories, from the Iliad to Macbeth to Moby Dick, hubris was the fatal flaw that destroys heroes. Pride ruins Achilles, the Scottish king and Captain Ahab. The heroes that win, from Odysseus to Henry V to Huckleberry Finn, are those who turn outside themselves for help: To God or the gods, to duty, and to friendship. 

For the past several decades, though, Hollywood has been teaching the opposite lesson. Our most successful heroes are skilled loners who triumph using their own interior resources, from James Bond to Iron Man, from Neo to Jason Bourne, and from Moana to Rey.

Believing in themselves too much gets the protagonists of Treasure Island and Captains Courageous in trouble,  but for Mulan and Kung Fu Panda, it’s the way to triumph. This comes from and feeds radical individualism, and it leaves an audience ill-equipped for the real world. 

In the real world, what the old stories say turns out to be true: You need humility, collaboration and community to succeed. Yes, self-loathing is disastrous in real life, but self-aggrandizement is even worse — and, in fact, leads to self-loathing when our self-confidence turns out to be ill-founded.

Second: Beware “Dreams always come true” stories.

For Disney princesses, unflagging optimism and high expectations always pay off. But many people who have suffered the real-life ostracization and degradation that Cinderella or Belle faced have sadly found that not all dreams come true. 

Still the Disney Princess ethic reigns in stories from High School Musical to A Boy Called Christmas. It dominates romantic comedies too, from Crazy Rich Asians to The Lost City, in which true love is the dream that will always come true.

What’s the harm in dreaming a little? Not much, if it is just a little. But we tend to overload ourselves with stories that say wonderful things will inevitably happen, and when not-so-wonderful things actually happen, we are crushed by disappointment. There is nothing wrong with being a middle-manager at a supermarket, even if you once dreamed of being a rock star, and there is nothing wrong with being a soccer mom in a ranch-style bungalow rather than a princess in a mansion. 

The romantic-comedy version of this mistake can be especially pernicious. Your life can end up feeling like a failure just because a picture-perfect mate never swept you off your feet. Worse, your normal relationship with a fellow sinner is noble and good, but your dream might convince you that it’s shabby and lame. Worst of all, you may be so committed to a romantic dream that you ignore the warning signs in a terrible relationship until it’s too late.

Which brings up another error …

Third, movies lie and say that “Love is about me, not you.”

Jesus says the greatest love is to lay down your life for another. St. John Paul says love is self-gift. St. Thomas Aquinas says love is “willing good to another.”

None of them say that the pinnacle of love is saying “You complete me” to another person, ala Jerry Maguire. Yet, in story after story, that’s what love means. Classical philosophy distinguished between self-seeking loves of pleasure and utility, and real love. But many movie relationships are loves of pleasure — from Snow White to 50 Shades of Gray — or loves of utility, from the understandable in Jane Austen movies to the creepy in Phantom of the Opera.

Marriage Story with Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansen is a cautionary tale about this mistake, but the best antidotes are “sacrificial love” stories from Rick and Elsa’s in Casablanca to Carl and Elle’s in Up and self-giving adventure stories like Apocalypto and Avatar.

In fact, look for antidotes to all these mistakes.

I collected movies teaching virtues here. Aleteia has many such lists, including Catholic movies here and here, Classic movies here and here, and thoughtful fun movies here and here.

Take Pope Francis’ advice. “I believe that, so as not to lose our bearings, we need to make our own the truth contained in good stories,” he said. “Stories that build up, not tear down; stories that help us rediscover our roots and the strength needed to move forward together.”

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