How "Trolls" Holds the Secret to a More Fulfilling Marriage
On May 10, 1775, delegates from 12 of the 13 British colonies involved in the Revolutionary War united in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for the Second Continental Congress. Together, they began a process that would result in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and the proclamation of the backbone of the American dream: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Little did they know that these words would become an unconscious curse for future generations, not just of Americans, but of anyone who embraced that final phrase, “the pursuit of happiness.” Luckily, almost 250 years later, a film was produced that held the secret to revolutionizing the American dream, and with it, our lives and our marriages. That film? Trolls.
Okay, so that was probably an overly melodramatic intro, but my point still stands. As a culture, we have a pursuit-of-happiness mindset. Happiness is fleeting. You can catch it for a moment, maybe even hold it for a while, but it always slips through your fingers, and you have to go and find it again. It’s an elusive emotion, and it can’t be made permanent. Few places is the impact of this constant pursuit so pronounced and profound as it is in marriages. There’s an unspoken cultural subtext to the marriage agreement that whispers, “If you ever find you’re not happy in this relationship, you can always end it. Start over. You deserve someone who makes you happy.”
And let me be clear, I’m not suggesting that happiness is a bad thing, nor am I even suggesting that the pursuit of happiness is a bad thing, in and of itself. What I am suggesting is that using happiness as a metric for success, for stability, or for sustainability is dangerous, because the measure itself is subject to incredible amounts of fluctuation. The reason for this fluctuation is simple: happiness is an emotion, and emotions, at their core, are just neurochemical responses in the brain to external circumstances. Happiness is a way of the body and brain saying, “I approve of these circumstances, and I experience a kind of mental pleasure when I encounter them.” But, because you have to encounter the circumstances first, before you can experience the happiness, that makes happiness necessarily reactionary - and therein lies the problem.
Now, here’s where Trolls comes in. There are two basic species depicted in the Trolls movie, the first, obviously, being the Trolls, and the second species are known as the Bergens. As the main character of the film, Princess Poppy, puts it: “The Bergens didn’t know how to sing, or dance, or even hug. They were the most miserable creatures in all the land. And once they saw how happy the Trolls were, they wanted some of that happiness for themselves. Eating a troll made them feel so happy.”
Just like most people, the Bergens were relegated to finding an external stimulus to make them happy. In fact, there only seemed to be one thing that would do the trick: physically consuming a being of such unrelenting happiness that the digestive process somehow imparted happiness to the Bergens like nutrients in the bloodstream (this is a kids’ movie?!). The Bergens may have been miserable, but they weren’t unwise, so they rationed their happiness. The Trolls were a self-replenishing resource, but, as with any self-replenishing resource, the rate of consumption can’t exceed the rate of reproduction. The Bergens were so desperate to be happy that the resorted to eating sentient beings, but they weren’t so desperate that they ate them carelessly, without thought to the future. So, they restricted the eating of Trolls to a single day of the year. The entire population of Bergentown would gather together for a holiday feast known as Trollstice. (Seriously. This horrorfest is a kids movie.) And the Bergens and the Trolls subsisted this way for an unknown amount of time - though one would guess at least a number of years - until one day, as the film begins, the Trolls orchestrate a daring escape.
Princess Poppy’s father and leader of the Trolls, King Peppy, leads the Trolls on a dangerous mission to freedom, sacrificing his own vest, socks, and underpants in the process. Thankfully, the Trolls make it out of Bergentown unscathed, move to a new part of the forest, and begin a new life filled with singing, dancing, hugging, and unrelenting happiness, far from the hungry jaws of those miserable Bergens. Without the Trolls, and with no reliable way of finding them or replacing them, the Bergens resign themselves to a life of sadness and frustration, never to taste happiness again.
The human condition is a Bergen-ish one. We are consumers. The pursuit of happiness is primarily and necessarily about consumption - what can we take or take in in order to make our brain produce the chemicals that tell us we are happy? But everything about our stories, our mythologies, our spiritual and religious answers, tell us that this model will never make happiness last. In fact, quite the opposite, it makes us more prone to bitterness. When we find something that makes us happy, often we cling to it, desperate to hold on to that feeling as long as we can. And when the object of our happiness ultimately fails us, we resent it. We blame the object for our lack of happiness. Similarly, the Bergens, depend as they do on the Trolls for their happiness, are nevertheless the enemies of the Trolls. They are frustrated, bitter taskmasters who enslave the Trolls to satiate their own needs, and when the Trolls are gone, their Bergen hearts are filled with anger and malice toward their adorable former happy-snacks. How damaging this is to our marriages! We get married and we hope and pray and often expect that our spouse will, at long last, make us happy. And when he or she does not, we become bitter, angry, and resentful. Some of us, like the Bergens, resign ourselves to this existence. Others, determined that they deserve happiness and that they have simply not found the source that will make it everlasting, leave our spouses in search of another, convinced that it was the choice of spouse and not the pursuit of happiness through them that was the problem. Indeed, the natural human is a Bergen
So, if we are Bergens in our natural state, then who are the Trolls? Well, that’s easy. Trolls are those among us who have embraced the truth that there is a pursuit above happiness, one that can revolutionize all of our relationships: joy. Now, I know that joy is commonly used as a synonym for happiness, usually just meaning an extreme amount of happiness. And I understand that usage. But I believe that there is an important and fundamental difference between joy and happiness, one that’s perfectly illustrated by the Trolls as a species. Whereas happiness is reactionary, it’s after the fact, joy is preceding. If happiness is a reaction to life, then joy is an approach to it.
Princess Poppy demonstrates as much in an early scene of the film when she’s talking to Branch, the seemingly only gray and grumpy troll in all the forest.
“I can’t wait to see the look on your face,” Branch says to Poppy, “when you realize that the world isn’t all cupcakes and rainbows - ‘cause it isn’t. Bad things happen, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
“Hey - I know it’s not all cupcakes and rainbows, but I’d rather go through life thinking that it mostly is,” Poppy responds.
And I think the movie clearly demonstrates that most of the Trolls would agree with her. They’re joyful creatures! Because joy is a perspective, not a response. Even in the face of the most dire circumstances, Poppy consistently maintains a sunny-side-up outlook. She’s hopeful, enthusiastic, motivated, and effective, thanks in no small part to her unwavering belief that things will work out. Some might call Poppy naive, but I don’t think that’s a fair assessment of her character, nor do I think it’s a fair assessment of joyful people. Poppy, like the joyful, doesn’t believe that good things will happen for no reason. It takes work, cooperation, and determination. But I’ll let her articulate her own point of view:
Now, I’ll willingly grant that this fun little song ends with Princess Poppy bloated, poisoned, wrapped in spider webs, unconscious, and near death. But that’s really more a reason for Branch to re-enter the story than anything else. I won’t rehash the minutiae of the plot here, suffice it to say that Branch saves Poppy in fairly short order, and she maintains her plucky, can-do attitude as they continue on their adventure. What if we approached our marriages with the same perspective? What if our joy was preexisting, and the supportive behavior of our spouses was simply an act of kindness to be appreciated, rather than a source of happiness to be milked dry and relied on for sustenance? For one thing, spouses would have immeasurably more freedom to be the flawed and broken humans that we all are. For another, we would be more free to enjoy the happiness our spouses do provide, instead of shifting focus away from it almost immediately to the next hit of the happiness drug, worrying and scheming to ensure that the hits keep on coming. The pursuit of happiness instead of the perspective of joy robs us of our ability to live in the moment. One more illustration from Trolls comes to mind.
Early in the film, the audience learns of the existence of a Troll tradition called “hug-time.” Every hour, an alarm goes off on a wristband worn by every Troll to alert them that it’s hug-time, and all the Trolls in the village share hugs with whatever Trolls are nearby. In a (history?) class that Poppy teaches early on, a group of Troll children are bemoaning the fact that hug-time isn’t often enough. “I wish it was every half-hour!” says one of the little Trolls. “So do I,” says Poppy, “but that wouldn’t leave much time for singing and dancing, now would it?” Even the most joyful among us isn’t immune to rationing happiness when we’re focused on the response to external stimulus as the source. But, at the tail-end of the film, Poppy’s heart is overflowing with love and with joy and declares, “Hug-time is all the time.” Because why shouldn’t it be! When hug-time is born out of a perspective of joy, as opposed to rationed within a paradigm of happiness, hug-time gets to be all the time.
I realize that the one thing I haven’t yet done is elaborated on how, exactly, one develops a perspective of joy - which is, in itself, impressive, considering that I’ve elaborated on so much regarding the symbolism of the movie Trolls that this blog is approaching term-paper length. But I hope you’ll stick with me for just a couple more paragraphs, because this part is just as important. Maybe more so.
This is probably where the blog is forced to divert from the filmmakers of Trolls. I don’t know either of the directors or any of the writers personally, but I would still be willing to bet that whatever their personal convictions, it wasn’t their intention to create an overtly religious allegory in Trolls. But there is a scriptural correlation to this call to joy. In James 1:2, the apostle writes: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds,” (ESV). The greek word hegeomai, here translated “count",” actually means “to lead,” or “to go before.” Usually, when the word is used in this way, it’s referring to a person’s authority, as in a ruler or a general of an army. However, Strong’s concordance makes clear that one of those authorities is to decide or resolve an approach. In fact, it’s from the figurative use of this word in the Greek that we get translations like “count,” “esteem,” or “think.” James isn’t saying “respond to trials of all kinds with joy,” he’s saying “approach trials of all kinds with joy.” But how do we do that? How do we get the joy?
To my mind, there is no better way to cultivate joy than to cultivate a relationship with Jesus Christ, the God of our salvation, the creator of the universe, and the author and finisher of our faith. He is the ultimate preexisting cause. He is the final source of all true joy. In Romans 15:13, Paul’s prayer for the Roman church is that “the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace…” In Galatians, he lists joy as one of the fruits of the Spirit, which is to say, an evidence of the Spirit’s presence in our lives. In Psalm 16:11, the psalmist writes, “in your presence, there is fullness of joy…” Jesus himself, in John 15, teaches his followers to abide in him. To abide is a state of being. Not a fleeting response, but a permanent condition. He explains, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you…” It’s His joy that lasts, that enables us to maintain a perspective that withstands the pain and negativity of the world. When we abide in Christ, when we commune with the Spirit, when we open ourselves to the Father, we are saturated with God’s joy. That joy goes before us in all things and becomes our perspective. And, like the Trolls, we become apostles and ambassadors of joy, taking it into the dark places of those cursed by the pursuit of happiness, teaching them to approach life, rather than simply respond to it.