Whenever anyone asks me what kinds of movies and shows I like, I tend to just give the vague umbrella answer of “fun and feel-good,” occasionally followed up with, “if I wanted to be depressed, I’d just watch the news.” This usually returns a mixed bag of recommendations, since of course different things make different people feel good. I know multiple people who listen to true crime podcasts to relax, which honestly kind of blows my mind. (I tried listening to one once and kept looking over my shoulder in my well-lit, populated office building in the middle of the day. Obviously I decided that was not a genre for me.) Even when people consider “feel-good” as a loose genre, it can encompass everything from slapstick comedy to cartoons to romance to Chicken Soup for the Soul. And despite my insistence that I like feel-good fiction, I generally don’t like dumb comedies or inspirational stories or crotchety characters who overcome their crotchetyness thanks to their spunky new neighbor. I tend to find stories like that inane and empty. (Which is not a judgment on the genre, but rather a frustration with my own search for media.)
All this made me wonder if “feel-good” was really the right term for what I look for in media. And I don’t think it is. It’s certainly the easiest to describe. But what I like, I think, is hope-filled media. There’s a difference between feel-good and hope-filled, one that isn’t called out nearly enough. Feel-good is something that makes you laugh or smile, something that might warm your heart or entertain you, usually without demanding too much emotional investment. Hope-filled, whether it deals with hard topics or stays surface level, simply leaves you convinced that the world might not turn out so bad after all. There’s obviously a lot of overlap in hope-filled media and feel-good media, because a lot of feel-good media deals in optimism. But hope is not a necessity of feel-good fiction. And feel-good is not a given with hope.
Something like Ted Lasso is very obviously both feel-good and hope-filled. I like to describe that show to people as “kind people solving their problems like adults.” (You should totally watch it if you haven’t already.) But something like The Office is feel-good without being hope-filled. I enjoy The Office, but the characters are largely not very nice people, and the show doesn’t necessarily project the idea that life is ever going to get any better for anybody. It’s funny, and it’s fun, and the characters are all likable, but it’s not really a show with hope. On the flipside, a movie like Captain Fantastic—one of my favorite movies—isn’t necessarily feel-good, because it deals with topics like mental illness and suicide and child endangerment, but it approaches everything through the lens that people can change and circumstances can improve, that life may be hard but it can get better.
Modern psychology has tried to discern the difference between hope and optimism, two concepts that are often used interchangeably. Both are beneficial in their own way, but the general consensus is that optimism involves expecting and looking forward to certain outcomes, while hope is simply the conviction that something better is possible. Hope tends to involve more of an element of action than optimism, because it tends to be more linked with achieving goals than predicting the outcome of a goal. It’s possible to be a hopeful pessimist—you know that a good outcome is possible but you don’t necessarily expect it to turn out that way. Hope is less reliant on outside circumstances and more linked to personal agency. The world may suck, and it may continue to suck, but my choices matter and may eventually help it suck less for someone, even if that someone isn’t me.
From a societal standpoint, we need all the hope and encouragement we can get. Depression and anxiety rates are constantly increasing, the world is facing a plethora of complex problems, and even small, mundane dramas and irritants can contribute to a less than ideal mental state. This isn’t news to anyone. A movie or book that convinces us even a little that we can make a difference and the world can potentially get a little bit better—not a blind assurance that it will get better, but a firm belief that it could—is at the very least a couple hours well-spent. Best case scenario, it could be the inspiration someone needs to change the world for the better.
But far-fetched heroics aside, on a purely narrative level, hope-filled media tends to be more complex and interesting than purely feel-good stories. Since hope involves action and agency, media that successfully projects hope has to, by necessity, involve characters with agency. The characters have to take action, make choices, deal with consequences. This doesn’t mean that they always have to make the right choices or do the right thing, but the story can’t just happen to them while they sit passively by. Feel-good media makes no such distinction. Often the protagonists of comedies or romances are simply subjected to a series of events and spend the entire story reacting without ever making an active choice of their own.
This is not to say that we should immediately cease and desist with every other type of media, because that would be absurd. Mindless feel-good media has its place; true crime, horror, and superhero movies have their place. People have different tastes, and different things make different people feel good. But it would be nice to have a common vocabulary to discuss the effects of media instead of its content. I don’t care if a show is about a dysfunctional family of superheroes or a chess player or a small team of government workers. I don’t care if it’s labeled comedy or drama or science-fiction. I care how I feel while watching it, and that transcends genre and subject matter.
I don’t know how to quantifiably fill a genre simply labeled “hope.” I can’t tell you how to write hope, because I think hope-filled media has to come from an innate perspective of hope. I can’t even prescribe what hope-filled media looks like, because while it has a somewhat objective quality, different things can inspire hope in different people. But I will try to do my part in giving the world a little more hope-filled fiction. If you write hope-filled stories—not intentionally inspirational or moralistic, not mindless and formulaic feel-good—consider submitting them to The Lit Nerds for publication. And join me on my quest to try to make the world a little bit better.