Why happy endings don’t make us happy

The Local's opinion columnist Jessica Alexander writes that if you really want to feel better about yourself, you should skip the sugary Hollywood films and opt for a Danish downer.

Why happy endings don’t make us happy
If you’re looking for a good Danish film to start with, try Thomas Vinterberg’s 1998 classic Festen. Photo: Nimbus Films
Have you ever left a feel-good movie without actually feeling so good? A feeling in which, despite the great ending, somewhere deep inside yourself you had the inkling that your life wasn’t that great? Your relationship, your house, your car or your clothes just weren’t as good as in the film?  
A large majority of Hollywood films are intended to make you feel good. But if art imitates life one wonders how realistic these syrupy-sweet endings actually are.
Danish films on the other hand, often have dreary, sad or tragic endings. Many times I have watched Danish films and waited to hear that soothing background music that would signal my suffering was about to end and everything would turn out all right after all. The boy would get the girl, the hero would save the day and all would be ok in the end. 
As an American, I almost felt it was my right to get a happy ending. But time and time again, the Danish films would touch on sensitive, real and painful issues without wrapping them up with a nice bow, lid closed, packaged up into the gift of a great life ahead. On the contrary, they left me with my raw emotions flapping in the wind, wondering what to do with them. How could Danes be so happy watching films like this? If art imitated life what was I to think?
Research shows that watching tragic or sad movies can actually make people happier because it brings attention to the more positive aspects of their own lives. It tends to make them reflect on their relationships in a ‘count your blessings’ kind of way.
Mary Beth Oliver, a professor of the positive psychology movement, has identified many eudaemonic rewards of watching depressing, stressful or even horrific stories. Eudaemonia is a term coined by Aristotle that defines the meaningfulness, insight and emotions that put us in touch with our own humanity. Eudaemonia can enrich us and perhaps even teach us something about ourselves. Aristotle believed that happiness was more related to the virtue of our character and striving for human good. This involves being in touch with our authentic selves and not numbing ourselves or escaping into false realities.
Even in the fairy tale world, it isn’t always so rosy in Denmark. Hans Christian Andersen, arguably history’s most famous Dane, has had several of his fairy tales modified to fit what some adults consider to be more acceptable for children. The original Little Mermaid for example, doesn’t get the prince in the end but rather dies from sadness and turns into sea foam.  
Danes believe that tragedies and upsetting events are something we should talk about too. They don’t believe they have to be glossed over for adults or for children. If you consider that we learn more about character from our suffering than our successes, it makes sense that we should examine all parts of life, also with kids.  This has been proven to build empathy and a deeper respect for humanity. It also helps us feel gratitude for the simpler things that we sometimes take for granted when we focus too much on the fairy-tale life. 
So the next time you are choosing a film, consider watching a Danish one. It may punch you in the face and kick you in the stomach with its bleak window into humanity. But you might just walk away afterwards and think, “Hey, my life is pretty good after all!”
The Danes know that how we reframe our perspective on life can make the biggest difference in how we feel about it anyway. It’s not just about getting a happy ending. It’s about being able to appreciate the journey along the way – with all its magnificent peaks and valleys.
Jessica AlexanderJessica Alexander is an American author who co-wrote 'The Danish Way of Parenting: A Guide to Raising the Happiest Kids in the World'. She has been married to a Dane for over 13 years and has always been fascinated by cultural differences. She speaks four languages and currently lives in Rome with her husband and two children. Her book can be purchased via Amazon and Saxo

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How Danish Oscar-nominated dark booze comedy was inspired by director’s tragic loss

‘Another Round’ (Danish title: ‘Druk’), a film about a pact by four world-weary Danish schoolteachers to spend every day drunk for a loosely scientific "experiment," was always going to walk a fine line between comedy and darkness.

How Danish Oscar-nominated dark booze comedy was inspired by director’s tragic loss
Director Thomas Vinterberg talking to press in Denmark. Photo: Emil Helms/Ritzau Scanpix

Director Thomas Vinterberg wrote his script, originally a play, upon realising many of the world’s great historic feats were made by people regularly intoxicated on alcohol — the very same substance that can rip lives and families apart.

But four days into shooting, Vinterberg’s daughter was killed in a car crash. He somehow still finished the uniquely funny, tender and tragic film — which has earned him a rare Oscar nomination for best director. 

“The movie was always meant to be life-affirming and full of love, and bare to some extent… raw,” Vinterberg told AFP in an interview via Zoom. 

“But the tragedy that happened in my life left all defenceless and open.”

Starring as the teachers are four of Vinterberg’s close friends and collaborators, including former 007 villain Mads Mikkelsen, who all spent the shoot doing “everything they could to make me laugh in these circumstances.”

“There was so much love on the set — and I guess you can see that on the screen,” said Vinterberg, whose movie is a favourite to take home the Oscar for best international film on Sunday.

While the film is clearly about alcohol, it is also “about living inspired, about forgetting about yourself, about being curious, and being in the moment and all that comes with drinking.”

Those life-affirming elements were inspired by his daughter Ida, who was due to play Mikkelsen’s daughter, and whose real-life friends play classmates who participate in a joyous teen drinking competition around a lake.

“There’s an alarming bunch of people and countries who connected to this thing about drinking,” joked Vinterberg.

“Yes, they drink differently in California — they put the bottle in a [paper] bag — whereas in Denmark, teenagers run around in the streets with bottles out,” he said.

“But it seems that the film connects on a different level, and hopefully we succeeded in elevating this film… to a movie about something more.”

Humour is not always associated with Vinterberg, co-founder of the ascetic Dogme 95 filmmaking movement with Lars Von Trier, and director of movies tackling issues such as child abuse including “The Celebration” and “The Hunt.” 

But Vinterberg, 51, has often defied categorization. The famous Dogme 95 “manifesto” imposing strict naturalistic limits on directors was always half serious, half tongue-in-cheek.

And while he has dabbled in Hollywood — for instance 2015’s “Far From the Madding Crowd” starring Carey Mulligan, also an Oscar nominee this year — his most widely acclaimed films are often his most Danish and local.

“It seems like when I dig in my own garden, that’s when people really get interested, also abroad,” he said.

The universal themes of “Another Round” may partly explain how Vinterberg landed one of just five Oscar best director nods, for a non-English-language film (fellow nominee Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari” is in Korean and English).

“The pleasures of alcohol, but also the destructive side of drinking, have been around for thousands of years, in all cultures almost,” said Vinterberg. 

The director served his cast booze during rehearsals, and they watched Russian YouTube videos together to observe episodes of extreme inebriation.

“We needed to see these characters being in the zone,” he recalled. “It wasn’t like they were very drunk, actually, but there was alcohol.”

On set, however, everyone was sober, Vinterberg said — “they had to act, basically, which I think they did well.”

Much as the production of “Another Round” is a story of contrasts — tragedy and camaraderie, humor and philosophy — the fates of the teachers diverge when the temptation of booze takes hold to varying degrees with each of them.

But the movie itself deliberately “did not want to moralize” or “make an advertisement for alcohol,” said Vinterberg.

“Very importantly, I did not want to have a message.”