“It feels like Groundhog Day … again”. And not in a good way. Anyone else been experiencing déjà vu, boredom or frustration? Help may be at hand from a rather surprising source – the very same 1993 romantic comedy Groundhog Day which made the expression popular .
In this article I will argue that
- The movie Groundhog Day is much more than just a romantic comedy
- The messages to take from Groundhog Day are profoundly Stoic
- The Stoicism of Groundhog Day is particularly helpful during the current pandemic
Groundhog Day Is Not Just Another Romantic Comedy
It’s easy to dismiss the movie as a likeable romantic comedy. Grouchy weatherman Phil Connors, played by Bill Murray is sent to cover the annual Groundhog ceremony on February 2nd in Punxsutawney, along with his producer, Rita, played by Andie MacDowell. In the best tradition of romantic comedies, after initial mutual dislike, the pair gradually warm to each other. The film ends with Phil and Rita together, planning to live happily ever after. When Roger Ebert, the leading film critic of the time, first reviewed Groundhog Day in 1993, he was quite modest in his praise. He called it “lovable and sweet” and didn’t even give it his top 4 star rating.
These days Groundhog Day is hailed as “the-greatest-high-concept-comedy-of-all-time”. Buddhists, Catholics and other religious thinkers have claimed the film as their own. Philosophical author Eric Weiner, writing in his recommended 2020 book The Socrates Express says that Groundhog Day is his favourite movie and “the most philosophical movie ever made.” Weiner points out similarities between Groundhog Day and Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory of Eternal Recurrence. Nietzsche states his theory in typically dramatic prose :-
What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you in your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself.Nietzsche, F. The Gay Science 341
You might like to try this “Eternal Recurrence/Groundhog Day” thought experiment out for yourself
The Groundhog Day Thought experiment
Design a day to relive for all eternity. Who would you be with, where would you be what would you do?
It’s a good exercise to help clarify your values. But there is one key difference between Eternal Recurrence and Groundhog Day. Phil Connors retains his memories, which opens up the possibility for him to learn from his mistakes. It is this twist that puts Groundhog Day in the tradition of redemptive moral stories like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Like Eberneezer Scrooge, Phil Connors changes from being a self-centred, cynical and melancholy misanthrope to being an altruistic, positive and happy valued member of the community.
Twelve years and presumably several viewings of the film after his 1993 review, critic Roger Ebert admitted he had previously underestimated the film. He upgraded its star rating and added it to his celebrated list of all-time Great Movies. Ebert explained that he now saw it as a “a parable for our materialistic age” and added “The good news is that we can learn to be better people… He becomes a better Phil, not a different Phil.”
What’s Groundhog Day Got To Do With Stoicism?
There may be more to Groundhog Day than first meets the eye, but what , you may well be asking, has it got to do with Stoicism? (I am talking here of Stoicism the life philosophy, not stoicism the stiff-upper-lip – they are quite different. See this piece)
In my view, the following four Stoic ideas below provide the key to understanding Phil’s ethical progress. I do need to note two caveats. First, I am not suggesting that the writers, let alone the character Phil Connors, had Stoicism specifically in mind – but rather that Stoicism provides an insightful lens to understand Phil’s growth from zero to hero. Second, I am presenting a somewhat simplified account of Stoicism. Had space and time permitted, other elements of Stoicism such as its worldview and Stoic mindfulness would have been explored in relation to Groundhog Day
1) We need to understand the difference between what we can and cannot control and focus on what we can control (the dichotomy of control)
2) It is not events that affect us but our interpretation of events (Stoic management of emotions)
3) Both a happy and ethical life are within our reach if we work on developing our moral character (virtue ethics)
4) We can and should aim to progress from our initial natural state (when children) of egocentrism to rationality and virtue (oikeiosis and theory of moral development)
Let’s explore Phil’s ethical progress through the lens of Stoicism
1. The Dichotomy of Control. Stoicism asks us to be really clear about what we can and what we cannot control. Stoics argue that we are often too optimistic about the extent of our control over what happens to us. This over-optimism sets us up for frustration and disappointment.
Initially Phil falls into this trap. He tries (and fails) to escape Punxsutawney. He tries (and fails) to get Rita into bed. Repeated failures lead to despair and eventually to multiple suicide attempts. Eventually Phil comes to understand hat he does not have the power to leave town or to get Rita into bed and once he does this his despair is replaced by a commitment to new, more worthwhile objectives.
The dichotomy of control should not be misunderstood as a recipe for passivity. It wasn’t necessarily wrong for Phil to try to escape town or to woo Rita. The problem, according to Stoicism, is his failure to accept his fate calmly once he realises that these objectives are not possible. The Stoics developed a helpful metaphor to help us navigate a wise middle ground between commitment and resignation -that of the archer. Like an archer, we should do our very best to hit the mark and achieve what matters. But then when we fail for reasons beyond our control, it is futile to do anything other than to accept this – we have done our best. (To complete the story, we must remember that the Stoics also believed that external goods such as winning at archery were of much less significance than internal qualities, such as practising diligently. This makes it easier to accept when external things outside our control go wrong.)
Phil’s attempts to save the life of a homeless person illustrates this point nicely. By this stage of the film Phil is becoming more altruistic and really wants to save the life of the homeless man who dies during the day. Phil tries everything – he gives the old man money, feeds him, even takes him to the hospital. Yet still the old man dies. A nurse explains to Phil that there is nothing anyone can do to change this. Phil feels sad, but he is not overcome with grief. There is a time for everyone to die, and Phil has done all he could have done.
2. Stoic Management of Emotions. Using the dichotomy of control is one helpful tool to reduce our vulnerability to distress. But it’s not the only idea in the Stoic toolbox. Indeed modern Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) owes a lot to the following idea, to be found in Epictetus’s Handbook (Enchiridion)
Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of thingsEpictetus, Enchridion, 5 (translated by Higginson, 1865)
One occasion when Phil could have benefitted from this idea is the memorable scene where he laments his predicament :-
What would you do, if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing you could say, and nothing you could do, mattered?
Soon after this, Phil attempts suicide. How could Stoicism have helped? Epictetus has the answer.
Make it your study then to confront every harsh impression with the words, ‘You are but an impression, and not at all what you seem to be’.Epictetus, Enchridion, 1 (translated by Matheson, 1916)
Or, in the words of Rita :
I don’t know, Phil. Maybe it’s not a curse. It just depends on how you look at it.
Epictetus could not have put it better.
3. Stoic Virtue Ethics. Both a happy and ethical life are within our reach if we work on developing our moral character. According to the Stoics, we do not have to make a tragic choice between being happy and being a good person. We can achieve both. The key is not to focus directly on “external goods” such as health, wealth and status (which are outside of our control anyway) but on internal qualities – specifically our moral character – which are within our control.[i]
The Stoics suggest there are 4 really important character qualities – the cardinal virtues. These are
- Wisdom – developing rationality and understanding what matters most in life and how to attain it
- Courage – the ability to do the right thing even when we may be fearful or experience discomfort
- Moderation and Self-control – the ability to want the right things and to do the right thing even when we are tempted to do otherwise
- Justice – living well in communities and the world at large. For Stoics, justice is a very broad concept encompassing kindness and compassion as well as fairness.
According to the Stoics, we all have the potential to develop these and other related virtues. The more we develop the virtues the more likely we are both to be happy and to live an ethically good life.[ii] The version of Phil that we see on the first February 2nd would flunk any virtues test. He would score particularly poorly on justice and kindness.
As the film progresses, so does Phil. He becomes a different version of Phil, one who tries to save the homeless person (showing the virtue of kindness), buys his co-workers coffee (displaying generosity) and is cheerful in his interactions with people who he had previously to whom he had previously been sarcastic, like his landlady (showing cheerfulness). His attitude to Rita changes from trying to get her into bed to showing a genuine interest in her (developing friendship). Ultimately he spends a good deal of the day running “errands” to help those in most need (showing altruism).
In short, Phil develops from zero to hero in terms of justice and related qualities. Phil also grows much wiser. As we have already noted, he becomes much better at applying the dichotomy of control. He also understands, as Rita suggested, how the time loop can be seen as a blessing. He comes to understand that predictability need not mean boredom so much as being able to anticipate events and respond skilfully to them. On the last version of February 2nd we see, Phil helps a doubting bride goes through with a wedding, catches a boy falling off a tree and rescues some old ladies whose car breaks down. It is only because life is so predictable that he can do all of this.
Phil also realises that the time loop means he has the opportunity to learn skills that in normal life would take too long. He learns to become a virtuoso piano player, ice sculptor and French speaker.
In the film this increase in virtue coincides with an increase in happiness. Phil is full of enthusiasm and positivity even before he finally wins Rita’s heart. Stoics would suggest this is no coincidence.
4. Oikeiosis and Theory of Moral Development. We can and should aim to progress from our initial natural state of egocentrism to rationality and virtue. The ancient Stoics had a theory of moral development called oikeiosis. We all start off aiming at self-preservation but, as we notice our affinity with other humans, we extend our concern to them. [iii] As we have seen, there is no better exemplar of this process than Phil Connors in Groundhog Day.
The Stoicism of Groundhog Day is Particularly Helpful During the Current Pandemic
I believe that we can all learn from Groundhog Day – even more so in our current predicament. In this final section I want to briefly suggest some ways in which those four key Stoic ideas that were helpful to Phil Connors can also help us.
1) The dichotomy of control
Develop the serenity to accept the things you cannot control in lockdown
The skill to focus on those things you can control
And the wisdom to tell the difference
The first tip is to let go of trying to control the things you cannot – for example government policy, what other people do and the difficulty of travel. Instead focus on the things that Stoics argue are within your control – your thinking and your behaviour. Tips 2,3 and 4 below explain how.
We should also bear in mind our potential to adapt so that we think about what we can do rather than what we cannot do – for example – I cannot play bridge at my club, but I can play bridge virtually. I cannot drive to see my friends, but I can see them via zoom. I cannot go for a walk to the next county, but I can do a decent walk from my house.
2) Stoic management of emotions
Notice what thinking is making you upset and develop a different and more helpful perspective.
Particularly unhelpful thoughts might include
- “This is going to last forever”
- “There is nothing I can do that matters”
- “I can’t do anything that I want anymore”
Learn to challenge these with alternative perspectives, such as
- “As people get vaccinated the lockdowns will ease”
- “I can do plenty that matters – in fact more people need help than ever”
- “I may not be able to do exactly what I want – but I can adapt. For instance, I can’t see my friends physically but I can see them on Zoom. I can’t go to my club to play bridge, but I can play virtually using the internet.”
3) Both a happy and ethical life are within our reach if we work on developing our moral character (virtue ethics)
Quit focussing on external goods, which are harder to obtain in the pandemic and focus instead of developing your character.
The pandemic might be the perfect time to develop your skills and internal qualities. Like Phil, you could learn to play the piano or learn a foreign language. Or you could use it to build up your meditation or yoga practice. What skill or hobby can you develop? More importantly, according to the Stoics, you should take the opportunity to develop the virtues. Like Phil, you might find that justice and wisdom are particularly good virtues to focus on in your own Groundhog Day experience.[iv]
4) We can and should aim to progress from our initial natural state of egocentrism to rationality and virtue (oikeiosis and theory of moral development)
Use the pandemic to accelerate your ethical progress.
In over 40 years before Groundhog Day Phil Connors had made virtually no ethical progress. Then in one day (admittedly one repeated many times) he progressed to a state akin to the legendary “Stoic sage”. Could you use your Groundhog Day experience to make similar progress?
I hope this article may prove of some practical help. It might even inspire some of you watch Groundhog Day one more time – and then maybe another time, and then another …
[i] See https://modernstoicism.com/stoic-values-clarification-part-2-by-chris-gill-and-tim-lebon/ for a discussion further exploring the relationship between the virtues and happiness
[ii] See https://medium.com/@timlebon/how-stoicism-can-help-at-a-time-of-crisis-part-iii-96051d5e34 for a humorous exploration of the benefits of internal qualities versus than the pursuit of external goods
[iii] See https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/stoicism/v-1/sections/oikeiosis for a fuller explanation
[iv] See https://modernstoicism.com/how-to-develop-virtue-in-a-stoic-way-by-chris-gill-and-tim-lebon/ for ideas about how to develop the virtues
Tim LeBon is part of the Modern Stoicism team, focusing on research and assessment. He is also a senior CBT psychotherapist in the NHS and a CBT therapist and Stoic Life Coach in private practice.