Want To Be Happier? Try a Dose of Groundhog Day
How a film could help change your life.
Posted August 3, 2020
It’s just like Groundhog Day. You must have heard that a few times during the days of COVID lockdown. So it might seem strange that just as we’re starting to emerge from lockdown, I’m going to suggest another dose of it. Watch Groundhog Day, the film about a TV weatherman trapped in an endlessly repeating day. Even if you’ve seen it, watch it again. Ironically, it bears repetition! And it could just be an inspiration in these strange and difficult times.
Seen as little more than a light comedy when it came out in 1993, it’s been rediscovered in the last few years with articles, academic papers, and even books, like Paul Hannam’s The Wisdom of Groundhog Day, extolling its value. Long before COVID, Groundhog Day had tapped into a common human experience of feeling trapped in a repeating cycle of daily life. For most of us, the obvious escape route is to change our life circumstances. However, psychological research over several decades has shown that even dramatic changes in circumstances tend to have surprisingly little effect on our long-term levels of happiness. Psychologists call this the hedonic treadmill: running very fast to stay in the same place. Philip Brickman and colleagues found that even 22 major lottery winners seemed no happier with their lives than 22 controls, and actually reported less enjoyment from everyday pleasures than the controls.
Rather than looking outwards towards a new location, with perhaps a more sympathetic co-star and a more compliant supporting cast to improve our well-being, we might be better looking inwards at how we’re actually playing the scripts we’ve been given. Many experts in the science of happiness think so. Their work suggests that long-term happiness depends less on the circumstances in which we find ourselves than on how we respond to them.
“The good news," says Martin Seligman, founder of positive psychology, “is that ways of significantly improving our lives are under our voluntary control.”
Groundhog Day provides a very good illustration of this because we see someone finally finding happiness, although everything around them stays exactly the same.
When we first see TV weatherman Phil Connors on his way to the small Pennsylvanian town of Punxsutawney to report on their Groundhog Day Ceremony, he’s arrogant and discontented. He hates his job; Groundhog Day is stupid and Punxsutawney is an awful place. This is evident in the sarcastic report he gives the next day.
“This is one time,” he sneers, “that TV fails to capture the excitement of a rat predicting the weather.” He can’t wait to get away. But when he wakes the next morning, it’s February 2, Groundhog Day, again. And again. And again. He’s condemned to an ever-repeating day where nothing changes. The film is about how he deals with it.
Phil’s first reaction is denial; this isn’t happening. Then, he realises that if there’s no tomorrow there are no consequences and he can do what he likes. So he steals, eats and drinks as much as he can, and seduces women. And when he tires of these games, he subsides into bitter self-pity. Why has this happened to him?
Denial, hedonistic escape, and self-pity are, of course, common and understandable responses to difficult life circumstances. But all are guaranteed to keep us trapped in a repeating day.
“I wake up every morning and it’s always Groundhog Day,” Phil tells his producer, Rita. “And there’s nothing I can do about it.”
“I don’t know, maybe it’s not a curse,” she says. “Just depends how you look at it.”
It’s a throwaway line but the seed is sown, an embryo of change conceived.
With nowhere else to go, Phil finally has to start looking inside himself and realises that there is something he can do. There’s the option, open to all of us in situations we can neither change nor escape from, to control our response. As Eckhart Tolle, author of the best-selling The Power of Now and another fan of Groundhog Day puts it, “We can choose to work with the day or against it, make it an ally or an enemy.”
Phil starts working with the day, becoming a participant in Punxsutawney's life rather than an angry spectator looking on. He begins to find a sense of purpose and a feeling of shared identity. Of all the factors that promote a sense of well-being the most important, positive psychologists have found, is a commitment to others arising from a shared sense of identity. We see Phil helping people, from feeding the frail old beggar he used to ignore to making sure he’s always there to catch the boy who falls from a tree. His sarcastic report on the Groundhog Day ceremony is replaced by a beautiful piece to camera contrasting Chekhov’s “long winter bereft of hope” with the warmth he’s found in Punxsutawney.
What makes this transition so believable is that Phil’s character hasn’t been changed to fit the story. He likes to be centre stage. The sarcasm is still there. When an elderly woman thanks him for changing her punctured tire, he tells her it’s no trouble, he just happened to have a spare wheel with him. He’s still Phil and he’s still in Punxsutawney on February 2. But he has lost the arrogant superiority that had been condemning him to a recurring day of disappointment with everyone and everything. He’s changed what was in his power to change. He’s finally living in the moment and finding happiness in a day that he’d hated for so long.
“Groundhog Day doesn’t tell you anything,” says Eckhart Tolle. “But it shows you a lot and it’s up to you what you want to do with it.”
What I think it shows us is that whatever our circumstances, we still have the power to make the day we’ve been given happier or sadder, duller or more interesting, more or less meaningful. We can choose to inject it with an appreciation for what we have or venom for what we don’t have. We can live in the day or stand outside it looking in. Our choice. Every time I watch Groundhog Day, I see some new take on this fundamental and potentially liberating truth. I’m always smiling and quietly resolving to try to be that little bit better in one way or another.
Why not give it a go? Or another go? You may find something there to help or inspire you too. But even if you don’t, it’s still 101 minutes of joyful entertainment. What have you got to lose?