We are all suckers for a happy ending. There may not be many in real life, but seeing them play out on the big or small screens can be inspirational, life-affirming, and heart-warming. Done right, a happy ending can bring about both joy and tears, both closure and inspiration, and can make even the dumbest movie something we'll always remember.
In the best happy ending ever filmed, George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, comes to realize that his life had meaning, and with that realization comes an even bigger one that all those people he helped in his life are paying him back doubly in his great hour of need. Seeing the sourpuss bank examiner throw a few coins in the kitty and start belting out singing magically turns an adversary into an ally. Director Frank Capra throws everything into that ending but the kitchen sink- and it works beautifully. I cannot watch this ending without tears welling up inside me, especially when angel Clarence sends George the message "No man is a failure who has friends- thanks for the wings."
A proper happy ending has three key components- a resolution of the central story, healed relationships, and a reunion of important characters who made a difference along the way.
The whole point of a good book or movie is to bring in a problem for its main characters, invite conflicts, and then resolve it in the end. Sometimes happy endings can seem fake or undeserved, and those are not the ones I'm talking about here. A true happy ending can only come after the main character learns a big lesson and opens up new possibilities for their life. Sometimes that might mean defeating a villain, but the villains only exist to challenge the heroes to be braver, more selfless, and more resourceful than they were before.
Reunions and relationships are important to happy endings, because they at their heart show us how we are not alone, and point out how much we have touched those around us. Some movies like Star Wars have resorted to bringing back ghosts to show how even dead characters are now happier and more joyful than we saw them before. One of the most tragic stories ever made into a musical- Les Miserables- somehow resurrects most of its dead cast to create a stirring and inspirational happy ending of sorts.
Relationships- between parent and child, between lovers, or between people who are intertwined in an adventure- are what life is all about. Healing relationships is what makes happy endings so powerful. There are so many ways that people can misunderstand each other and drift apart that it's cathartic to see other people figure out how to come back together.
We are all here in this life to grow and to learn, and it's a shame that each of us doesn't have a multitude of happy endings to celebrate lessons learned and villains defeated. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who waged a years long war against fascism, died before ever getting to see the war end and his efforts rewarded. Martin Luther King was assassinated at a young age and never got to live to see the first African American elected president. Vincent Van Gogh became one of the most famous painters ever, but all after his death. Van Gogh died penniless having never sold his paintings or gotten any of the recognition that would come posthumously. Sometimes no matter how hard we work there is no resolution or healing, but we've got to keep trying somehow.
The odds are that most of us won't have a happy ending. Death comes without warning and can be far from a happy experience. We need to create more "happy ending experiences" for ourselves long before that fateful day, and we don't have to go all Hollywood to do it. (Though the movies can certainly provide some inspiration here.) Every chance we get, we need to create some or all of the ingredients of a happy ending- big lessons, healed relationships, and reunions of loved ones- and find the joy in those.
Speak from your heart, like this scene from the end of 1996's Jerry Maguire.
Stand up for what you believe in, as seen in this ending from Dead Poet's Society
Be there for the ones you love, like in this scene from Pixar's Up (Pixar gets happy endings right every damn time!!)
Don't be afraid to tell someone you love them, like in this famous scene....
And once in a while let yourself sing, dance, and enjoy life, as shown in this great happy ending from Shrek
Sad and bittersweet endings are okay in movies and stories, and can provide growth and lessons a different way. Movie studios are becoming less likely to tie up stories with a joyous ending because there's more money in stretching drama out over multiple sequels. You don't always need a happy ending to a story, but you need them somewhere. We still have a strong, innate need for the feeling that this was all worthwhile somehow. That all the struggle, mistakes, and sacrifices are leading to something grand and joyous.
Our happy ending experiences don't have to be grand, but they should be joyous, and they should give us the feeling that we are surrounded by love and generally on the right path. But we, like George Bailey, have to earn those happy experiences, just as our heroes on the big screen had to earn theirs. Here's hoping we all create more and more moments like these.