Psychology in “The Pursuit of Happyness” Film


The Pursuit of Happyness is a film that includes a wide range of psychological and organizational behavior theories. These are exemplified by character behaviors and plot points that fit within the context of organizational culture. Organizational behavior is a subset of human psychology that promotes social interaction. The Pursuit of Happyness depicts individual traits that aid the protagonist in achieving success through self-efficacy, goal-setting, and learning styles which then become invaluable as he incorporates into the culture and workflow of the stockbroker organization.

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The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is an introspective psychological test that seeks to determine how an individual perceives their environment and their preferences. It is commonly used in business to assess personality types which are a determinant of behavior as well as mental and emotional characteristics. These can then be used to find strong areas and skills for the individual. The protagonist, Chris Gardner, can be considered an individual that is sociable and extroverted. He is often assertive in pursuing his goals, both in his personal life and in terms of career opportunities. He is approachable and unafraid to state his opinion. This helps him to succeed by opening doors to new opportunities.

One of the most applicable theories in this film is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Popularized in the mid-20th century, it became the primary model of individual development. The premise is that human needs are built upon in a pyramid-like structure. In order to reach the next level, the previous one has to be fulfilled to an extent. The base level is physiological needs, which are followed by safety, love, esteem. The final level is self-actualization which is the epitome of the human condition. If needs are not met, it leads to a state of disequilibrium, which can only lead to stability if the goal is achieved. Human behavior is inherently guided by needs, and at times can provide the drive to achieve them (Jonas, 2016).

The purpose of self-actualization is to set goals and accept the potential challenges and obstacles in achieving them. Gardner’s story in the film is one of self-actualization. He is aware of his talents and drives for entrepreneurship that lead him to invest in bone density scanners. However, the investment proves to be a failure which throws the family into poverty. Therefore, as a struggling salesman, Gardner is unable to fulfill the underlying physiological and safety needs for himself and his family. The financial impact seemingly undermines the whole dream of self-actualization for him. However, using the last available resources and motivation, Gardner, against insurmountable odds, is able to get the internship and eventually receive the position, which resolves the majority of his other issues on various stages of Maslow’s pyramid. This demonstrates a unique case of a top-down approach of the theory but ultimately results in the same stability in life for the protagonist.

Theoretical Basis to Motivation

One of the critical components of human behavior is based on the motivation and reasons behind particular decisions and actions. The film portrays several of them. The Equity Theory developed by psychologist John Adams in 1963 is based on the concept of distributed justices. In the context of business and organization, equity is a fairness concept that is based on costs and rewards. The theory proposes that people seek relationships where net costs and benefits will be similar to those around them. If an individual is under-rewarded, they will experience distress and attempt to establish fairness. Theoretically, this means that an individual will experience motivation to adjust their approach and work harder until the goal is achieved. This theory is based on a balance of inputs (effort, number of hours worked) and outputs (salary, benefits). It is a subset of the psychological contract concept which oversees the relationship between an employee and employer.

In the film, Gardner perceives this inequity when he first encounters the stockbroker arriving in an expensive vehicle. He views the people working in the industry as truly happy because of their socio-economic status and asks himself why he cannot be the same. This creates motivation for him to re-establish equity by attempting to learn the trade and seek a position in the organization. It was an idea that Gardner believed would make him happy and allow him to create a life for his family.

Motivation is based on emotional and mental perceptions, which require a motive to pursue specific goals. There are two types of motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is based on the wants and needs that come from within. It is established through cognitive and affective processes. Internal motivation drives me to explore, learn, and develop in areas of interest. Most often, intrinsic motivation is prolonged, consistent, and more powerful at enhancing performance. Meanwhile, extrinsic motivation is based on external and materialistic rewards (wealth and power) or punishment. These are pressures from society and the environment of an individual. A person is driven by the end goal, and once the objective is achieved or becomes irrelevant, the motivation fades.

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In intrinsic motivation, the underlying concept is recognizing the significance of behavior and one’s actions. The significance is determined by individual goals. The Goal Setting Theory by Locke and Latham suggests that objectives become a regulator of human behavior. Actions are triggered by the stress conditions of the desire to achieve success. Therefore, motivation and behavior are intertwined, which is reflective of organizational culture, market forces, and interpersonal relationships (Locke & Lathan, 2002).

Self-efficacy and goal setting should be considered within the context of the film. Gardner’s objective to become a stockbroker is a stimulus. The intrinsic motivation to provide for his family, combined with the extrinsic motivation of a high-salary job, are the foundation of his motivation. However, these goals are difficult to achieve based on his life position and socio-economic status. Despite this, the challenge becomes a driving factor for Chris due to his personality type. Self-efficacy pushed him to overcome obstacles. Meanwhile, with determination, he is able to climb out of poverty.

Within an organizational culture, motivation serves as a critical indicator that can reflect upon performance and reaching objectives. It helps to provide direction and substance to the effort of the “pursuit of happiness.” In other words, Maslow’s hierarchy can be directly tied to motivation since there is a complex correlation between individual needs and organizational goals. Physiological needs are achieved through the payment of a salary allowing employees to support themselves. Safety needs are met by providing job security and appropriate working conditions. Social aspects are developed through interpersonal relationships and professionalism amongst peers and management. Self-esteem needs can be met through promotion and recognition with positive feedback. Meanwhile, self-actualization is present in providing employees opportunities to progress and develop based on individual skills (Jonas, 2016).

All these aspects fit into the context of organizational structure and culture. The satisfaction of a specific level of needs creates motivation to reach the next level. Self-fulfillment occurs when all needs are met. Furthermore, in labor psychology, motivation becomes a central component of performance. Herzberg proposed the 2-Factor Theory of motivation-hygiene. The motivators of a job include opportunities, involvement, and recognition, which lead to growth and satisfaction. Meanwhile, hygiene factors are aspects of maintenance such as safety, salary, and security. These are often under threat and, in one way or another, cause dissatisfaction. The motivators become activated only after hygiene factors are met (“Motivating employees,” n.d.).

In organizations, social values are important aspects of motivation and performance. Recognition and appreciation come through fellow co-workers, job responsibilities, and professional self-fulfillment. These aspects, along with monetary rewards, continue to drive performance and development in the work environment. Regardless of the type of organization, intrinsic motivation has the most significant impact on output. Therefore, companies that maintain a positive business culture, which supports the development and maintenance of hygienic needs, tend to have employees with the best satisfaction and output rates (Burton, 2012). Within the context of the film, this approach explains why Gardner was able to achieve success in stockbroker practice while failing as a salesman of the bone density scanner. The internship, although unpaid, provided Gardner with an opportunity for growth by pushing candidates with the promise of reward. The culture within the organization is based on the recognition of talent and appreciation of results. This is the reason why Gardner received the internship and, eventually, the job, by exceeding expectations.

Learning Styles

The theory of Kolb’s individual learning styles suggests that humans use a 4-step process to learn. Most often, people have weaker stages of learning while emphasizing more preferential aspects. It is important to consider that humans are unique and different in their learning styles, with each one fitted best for an individual to acquire complex skills. The accommodating learning style type matches Gardner. It is the style of learning with active experimentation as the primary mode. It is a pragmatic method of education that relies on emotion and experience for decision-making. This style is extremely useful in management and sales. Its defining characteristics include leadership, risk-taking, adaptability, and initiation (McLeod, 2017). Gardner adopts this learning style as an aggressive attempt to enter the stockbroker business. He does not have the necessary analytical background to evaluate decisions. However, he has years of sales experience and a sociable attitude that he uses to his advantage. Instead of taking a theoretical approach to the industry, he achieves success through pragmatism. This is exemplified by his approach to sales, where he uses an unorthodox script and method to gain clients.

Affective Theory

It is reasonable to suggest that emotions directly impact attitudes and behaviors at work. They influence an individual’s perception of the job’s value and importance. The Affective Events Theory proposed by Weiss and Cropanzano outlined how major emotions of sadness, anger, fear, joy, surprise, and love affect the workplace. Many jobs, particularly connected to working with customers, require emotional labor, which causes workers to force emotions and pretend. This can be exhausting and result in stress and cognitive dissonance. Emotional intelligence helps to mitigate this by allowing one to grasp an awareness of the emotions of oneself and others. This helps with self-management, which allows controlling emotions. Furthermore, a social awareness that can aid in recognizing emotions leads to relationship management that establishes healthy and supportive relationships (“Emotions at work,” n.d.). In the context of the film, emotion had a significant impact on job performance. In fact, it served as the central point of the plot as the protagonist sought to pursue happiness that he was not experiencing at his job as a medical device salesman. Constant stress from sales calls led him to sadness. Gardner was dissatisfied and did not value his job. Eventually, it began to reflect on his careless attitude to losing the scanner a couple of times. When Chris acquired the internship and began to feel satisfaction, motivation, and joy from the job, it impacted his performance and attitude, even as he continued to sell medical equipment.

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Behaviors in an Organizational Culture

The Pursuit of Happyness presents several lessons about behaviors in a business organization that are valuable and applicable to real life. These are personal aspects the author has drawn from watching the film in the context of this course. However, many of these can be related to Cialdini’s 6 influence strategies. These are factors that researchers consider to be influential in persuading others, based on emotion and human behavior. They include reciprocity, scarcity, authority, consistency, liking, and consensus (“Principles of persuasion,” n.d.). The protagonist uses these principles to navigate the organizational culture and establish social ties in order to achieve success. Combined with motivational factors, unique personality, and skills, Gardner is able to have influence and use persuasion with the managerial board to attain the internship and receive the job.

One of the central themes of the film is that self-belief is critical to achieving personal goals. Gardner was stumbling in every aspect of life and failing to fulfill his responsibilities as a father. He had lost practically everything from a materialistic perspective. This leads to the next point of finding opportunities that bring positive outcomes and rewards. The initial lack of ability to succeed as a salesman for medical equipment was related to the fact that the job lacked any potential, both monetary and professional. This served as a primary driving force for Gardner to enter a stock brokering career. There were concrete rewards tied to the effort that he was giving it. The film emphasizes that risk is an inherent part of success. It serves as a catalyst for change which then fosters growth. Taking the risk to enter the industry and then performing sales calls outside the protocol eventually led to extraordinary outcomes.

Another aspect of Gardner’s success at the firm is strongly based on his extrovert personality. His attitude of positivity and determination became the foundation for his decision-making. It also impacted the impression that he made on colleagues and managers. Despite lacking the high-profile social status and education like others, he showed work ethic and respect throughout the course of his internship. Furthermore, he developed his social and networking skills. Gardner’s ability to interact with others offer help even when he could not afford it and his positive attitude all serve as forces that established him as a team player within the company that promoted a positive workplace culture.


The Pursuit of Happyness portrays how individual traits aid the protagonist to achieve success through self-efficacy, goal-setting, and learning styles, which then become invaluable as he incorporates them into the culture and workflow of the stockbroker organization. This story of the rise to wealth and professional success can be seen as the fulfillment of self-actualization and the American dream. Using determination and perseverance, Gardner overcame poverty and struggles to find a place within a positive workplace culture which supported his growth and development.


Burton, K. (2012). A study of motivation: How to get your employees moving. Web.

Emotions at work. (n.d.). Web.

Jonas, J. (2016). Making practical use of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory to motivate employees: A case of Masvingo Polytechnic. Journal of Management and Administration, 2, 105-117. Web.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G.P. (2002). Building a practically uses theory of goal setting and task motivation. American Psychologist, 57(9), 705-717. Web.

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McLeod, S. (2017). Kolb – Learning styles. Web.

Motivating employees. (n.d.). Web.

Principles of persuasion. (n.d.). Web.

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