Judgment Mind at the Movies

Though I started watching the Academy Awards when I was a little kid, I don’t know if I ever enjoyed it. Looking at the experience through the lens of well-being and depression, I think it reveals a lot about how judgment mind makes us enjoy things less.

Poor Judgment

The Award for Worst Picture

In 2005, a fellow movie buff decided to see all the Best Picture nominees in preparation for Oscar night. He asked if I wanted to go see Million Dollar Baby. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Screenplay, and Best Director. I said, “Sure.”

I regretted the decision. It was the worst movie I’d seen that year or in many years. It made me ANGRY.

Poor Judgment

There were probably worse movies made in 2004.

I haven’t seen Vampires: The Turning, which received ZERO Academy Award nominations.

What made me angry was the collective poor judgment (including my own) that had prompted me to see the film.

After accepting my friend’s invitation, I ignored the red flags raised by David Edelstein’s review on Fresh Air. “I think it’s an extremely artful exercise in obviousness,” said Edelstein. “There’s a dilemma for film critics in discussing Million Dollar Baby because the meaning hinges on plot turns that shouldn’t be spoiled. So when I get to that part, you’ll hear a spoiler bell.” Ding! “And if you haven’t seen the film, you’ll have a few seconds to turn the volume down. I’ll ring it again when it’s time to come back.”

This was where I made the poor judgment. I didn’t want to hear the spoiler. “You can see Maggie’s tragic martyrdom limping toward you, but you can’t quite believe this chichéd go-for-it boxing picture would sucker punch you with tragedy so extreme.” Spoiler: Maggie is punched when she’s not looking, paralyzed, and compares herself to a dog that needs to be shot. “Eastwood’s movie is so threadbare, underpopulated, and shameless, that there really is nothing for Maggie to live for.” If I’d followed Edelstein’s advice and come back for the rest of the review, I would have been saved by the bell and backed out of seeing the movie. “People make the case that Million Dollar Baby is an allegory with boxing as its frame, but I can’t get past all the wrong and crudely manipulative notes on the surface.”

I hate few things more than “crudely manipulative” movies.

And the Winner Is…

The Academy Awards are a reflection of the judging minds of a subset of people in the movie industry. I don’t remember who said that they’re absolutely meaningless and the first line in your obituary.

Dacher Keltner supported the second part of that statement when he announced his guest on The Science of Happiness as “Pete Docter, Academy Award-Winning director.”

If the Academy Awards didn’t make me a happier filmgoer, do they at least make the winner happy?

Pete Docter: I’m curious about this. There’s a lot of drive towards happiness. But how much are we really meant to have on a daily basis? And is happiness maybe even the right word? Because happiness implies like a state of above average, like a euphoria. And I think what ultimately maybe we’re looking for is more a sense of contentment? Is that right? I don’t know. I’m just thinking out loud here.

I know for me working on the films there’s this sense that you’re working toward something. Like, okay, I can put up with all this misery and stress because once the film comes out, then I’m going to be happy.

Dacher Keltner: Were you happy when it…?

Docter: No.

Keltner: Even after you won the Academy Award I think…

Docter: No. I still look at it and go like, oh, we could have done that better. And/or I don’t care about it anymore. I’m on to the next thing.

…One of the great lessons of creative work is that it’s not about finishing, it’s about the process of doing it. That’s the real joy. And if you’re miserable, enjoy the misery.

Is Pete Docter an outlier?

Academy Award Winning actress Jennifer Lawrence was mad as hell when she discovered that her non-Academy Award Winning costars in American Hustle had  been paid more than she had by virtue of being “lucky people with dicks.”

Robin Williams told Marc Maron, “You know, the weird thing is, people say, you have an Academy Award. The Academy Award lasted about a week. And then, one week later, people are going, ‘Hey, Mork!'”

And the Loser Is…

If winning doesn’t make winners happy, what does it do for the losers?

In the Hidden Brain podcast episode “Feeding the Green-Eyed Monster: What Happens When Envy Turns Ugly,” social psychologist Richard Smith says, “If you look at the words that we have available in our language for, say, feeling happy over someone’s success, I actually can’t think of any. Though we do have words for envy, resentment, and so forth.”

The purpose of envy, host Shankar Vedantam observes, “cues you in to your relative position among friends, colleagues and peers.”

So, in the case of the Academy Awards, the natural net effect is one unhappy winner and four embittered losers in each category.      

Judgment Mind and Pleasant Experiences

After E. and I watch a movie, she’ll sometimes ask, “How many stars do you give that one?”

I know that she’s just making conversation, but answering takes me out of the moment and engages my judging mind.

A trickier question she asks occurs when we’re enjoying a really good meal at a restaurant. “Is this the best _____________ you ever had?

There are two ways that the judging mind can make our lives less pleasant. We can appraise our memories as better, diminishing our present. We can appraise our present as better, diminishing our memories.

It’s the perfect lose-lose situation.

Beneficial Discomfort

Judging our own work so that we can improve it provides some social benefit to our co-workers and community.

Whenever I can, I run these posts by a critique group to get feedback on whether my points are clear or confusing. I’m always happy to endure a little discomfort in order to comfort the reader.

But I find that outside the very narrow scope of offering solicited feedback, judging the work or behavior of others almost always leads to discomfort that benefits no one.     

Ten Minute Exercise

To demonstrate the difference between how the judging mind versus the open or appreciative mind affects our experience, I’ll offer movie and choose your own adventure versions of this exercise.


If you’re a movie buff, play the Filmspotting Madness game. It consists of comparing two options (movies of the ’90s, all-time great films, directors, or actors) and choosing which one you like more.

  1. Set a timer for ten minutes.
  2. Take a moment to consider how your mind and body feel right now.
  3. Go to the Filmspotting Madness edition of your choice (1990s movies, all-time greats, directors, or actors.
  4. For each of the Round 1 bracket pairings where you’re familiar with both options, take as much time as you need to fully contemplate your emotional reaction to each option.
  5. Consider how the feeling in your mind and body changes when you switch between considering the merits of each to choosing between them.
  6. Make as many choices as you can until the timer sounds.

Choose Your Own Adventure

Print out your own blank bracket.

  1. Set a timer for ten minutes.
  2. Take a moment to consider how your mind and body feel right now.
  3. Fill in one of the sets of blank brackets with a list of 16 favorite songs, foods, books, clothing designers, baseball teams or players, whatever.
  4. For each of the pairings, take a moment to observe your emotional reaction to each option.
  5. Consider how the feeling in your mind and body changes when you switch between considering the merits of each to choosing between them.
  6. Repeat this process of pairing and deciding until you’re down to one choice or the timer sounds.
  7. Take a moment to consider how your mind and body feel right now before continuing with your day.

Takeaway. Try using what you’ve learned about how your judging mind influences your feelings when you find yourself using it in everyday life.

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.