Perfectly Happy Even Without Happy Endings, by Carrie Rickey, explores what Lindsay Doran (who produced Sense and Sensibility and Stranger Than Fiction, among many other films) has learned from her extensive research on how movies work upon our emotions, and from the teachings of Dr. Martin Seligman, a "catalyst of the positive psychology movement" who has identified the five essential elements of well-being as: positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment. Analyzing hits and critical favorites, Doran confirmed what she'd intuitively suspected about what audiences responded to in movies that worked:
She broke down their emotional components, isolated the elements of mood elevation and tested her findings against those of market researchers. She concluded: Positive movies do not necessarily have happy endings; their characters’ personal relationships trump personal achievements; and male and female viewers differ in how they define a character’s accomplishments. Ms. Doran had long been drawn to “funny dramas and comedies that make you cry,” she said. Now she knew why.
You really ought to read the whole thing. But here's the bit that I found most fascinating. Doran talked to a veteran market researcher who startled her by claiming that "audiences don't care about accomplishments" - apparent heresy in the face of standard Hollywood happy endings where girl gets boy, man kills shark, or king conquers stammer. Said the vet:
“Audiences don’t care about an accomplishment unless it’s shared with someone else. What makes an audience happy is not the moment of victory but the moment afterwards when the winner shares that victory with someone they love.”
Doran found this to be true of one popular movie after another, and if you test it out, the idea becomes a "Duh!" Sure, Shawshank Redemption's happy climax comes when Morgan Freeman is finally free, but the joy that earns tears and cheers from men and women alike arrives when Freeman's character reunites with Tim Robbins' and they get to celebrate their freedom together.
Current hits as diverse as Globe-winners The Artist and The Descendants exhibit this principle in vivid relief; the same is true of Moneyball, The Help, and Bridesmaids. Many a great movie has ended with relationship as the point, and an accomplishment never achieved (It's a Wonderful Life's George Bailey never does get to leave Bedford Falls). In fact, a great many classic films have "happy" endings where someone beloved has died (Star Wars), and the shared joy carries an acknowledgment of something lost.
Doran's idea also dovetails with one of my own long-held convictions about romantic comedy endings - that the best and most resonant are "joyful defeats" - boy-gets-girl moments leavened with a sense of loss (e.g. Shakespeare in Love, which leaves its lovers separated, though eternally "together"). You can see it at work in one of my favorite rom-com climaxes, that of Lindsay Doran's own Sense and Sensibility (while online restrictions nixed embedding it here, you can view the scene via this Hulu link). When Elinor (Emma Thompson) learns that Edward (Hugh Grant) is free to marry her (happiness!) she totally loses it, uncontrollably weeping (sad but hilarious); what's lost is her pride and long-practiced composure.
But the best bit follows as we cut to her mother and two sisters, who've hurried outside to give the couple their privacy. Little Sister climbs a ladder to peek in the window, and excitedly reports to Mom and Big Sis that Edward has gone down on one knee. It's a shrewd and inventive way to depict an otherwise cliched moment (i.e. the obligatory proposal is off-screen) but it also gives us Doran's emotional catharsis: As the women laugh, cry, and hug, relationship is celebrated. The couple's happiness is shared - and continues, as we cut to a wedding with a smiling, publicly coupled Elinor and Edward in attendance.
Here's a fun and educational game to play: Check out some of your favorite movies' endings, and see if what Doran and her Dr. Seligman are talking about proves true. Then you might want to reexamine the last pages of your own project-in-progress. Happy? Sad? Something that's working, evidently, is a combination of the two.