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The Secret to Happiness is Watching Groundhog Day

groundhog-day-bill-murray
(Image credit: Unknown)

Today, 2nd February, is Groundhog Day. Yep, it’s not just a classic film, it’s a legit folk festival in the US. And the 1993 Bill Murray movie isn’t just an endlessly rewatchable movie, it’s also a treatise on how to be happy.

So says Paul Hannam, once a wildly successful, if miserable, tech entrepreneur, and now, among other things, a personal development coach. Hannam’s new book, The Wisdom Of Groundhog Day, contains a foreword by Groundhog Day screenwriter Danny Rubin, and when we spoke to Hannam he explained he and Rubin have the same view on the story’s central idea: Bill Murray’s character Phil “changes the worst day of his life to the best day of his life and nothing changes outside of him – he changes himself”.

We asked Hannam to identify some of the key themes of the movie which inform the advice in his book. Yep, this article isn’t just an excuse to watch Groundhog Day clips – it’s got legitimately helpful suggestions for getting out of a rut.

Be Your Own Coach

Unlike a lot of movies about personal transformation, Phil doesn’t have a Mr Miyagi to guide him. “He is his own coach,” Hannam explains. “He doesn’t change by going on courses, he changes by seeing his life as an experiment every day.” Easy enough, although we don’t have the luxury of trying different approaches to identical events day after day.

Even so, “we’re all creatures of habit,” says Hannam, “and we tend to slip into repetitive patterns”. Hannam started to track his tendencies by keeping a journal and experimenting with different approaches. “So in a traffic jam I’d say, Oh great, I’m in a traffic jam. This is an opportunity to make a phone call, listen to a podcast or just do something different.”

“This is not something that happens overnight,” Hannam admits, “you’ve got to do it again and again and again”.

Practice Makes Perfect

“One of the biggest problems I see when I’m coaching,” Hannam says, “is that people often know what to do but they don’t know how to do it. Early on in the film, when Phil realises he’s in the time loop and tomorrow has no consequences, he plans the perfect robbery.”

Now such a caper takes practice, and it’s a tactic Phil directs to better ends as the movie progresses. “Anything worth doing in life requires practice,” Hannam explains, “and the film and my book is all about mastering the art of living through practice. We won’t get there with good intentions, or through knowledge alone.”

Change your Mindset

“The third big tip of the movie is that the only significant change is when we change our mindset,” Hannam says, exemplified by Phil’s broadcast from the town’s Groundhog Day ceremony.

“First he does it as a detached professional, then he does it in a cynical way, then a sneering way, then in a very angry, miserable way. But by the end of the movie he talks about how wonderful it is to be in Punxsutawney. He’s completely changed his attitude and it’s authentic too, he really does love being there. Nothing changes other than his mindset.”

Hannam explained that his academic work in psychology has shown him that changing a person’s circumstances, even winning the lottery, only has short term effects on how people feel, but Groundhog Day demonstrates the idea that “we have everything we need to be happy right now”. It’s a matter of discovering the “core habitual behaviours that can almost keep us trapped,” Hannam says.

In Phil’s case, that’s cynicism, but Hannam says that once anyone understands what’s driving them, then “stripping everything back to the essence of what we all want, which is connection, love, peace of mind, meaning, fulfillment, helping other people, wellbeing”, we can all stand in front of a town of grinning hicks and profess our genuine love for them. We’re paraphrasing, but you get the point.

Be Somebody Worthy of Being Loved

Hannam had something of a bee in his bonnet (a groundhog in his burrow, perhaps?) about the “many courses showing you how to pick up people, how to date people, how to get people to like you”. Like a pick-up artist, Phil “spends the first half of the film trying to seduce Rita. He uses the time trap to know everything about her so he can manipulate his way into bed with her – but it fails.”

”She only loves him when he becomes somebody worthwhile of being loved,” Hannam continues. “It’s a very powerful message for relationships, for friendships, for everything. You can’t fake your way to love. What people really want is authenticity and honesty.”

Find the Pleasure in Doing

Finally, Hannam points out that Phil creates “a simple life of simple routines. He takes pleasure in the actual doing of things rather than the achievement of tasks.” Hannam thinks that as a society we’re fixated on outcomes to our detriment. We’re doing things because it’s going to earn money or somehow help us to achieve a goal. “We go on Facebook and see our friends on holiday and all the exciting things they’re doing and we get very jealous and we think we’re missing out on life. But actually life is happening right in front of you in the very smallest details.”

Hannam says Phil “finds great joy in the simple act of just being alive. I think there’s a great lesson for all of us.”

The Wisdom Of Groundhog Day is out now. Buy on Amazon (opens in new tab)

Jonathan Shannon has been the editor of the Coach website since 2016, developing a wide-ranging experience of health and fitness. Jonathan took up running while editing Coach and has run a sub-40min 10K and 1hr 28min half marathon. His next ambition is to complete a marathon. He’s an advocate of cycling to work and is Coach’s e-bike reviewer, and not just because he lives up a bit of a hill. He also reviews fitness trackers and other workout gear.