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The meritocratic discourse as a sociocultural element: analysis of the film “The Pursuit of Happyness”

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ABREU, Liliane Alcântara de [1], SOARES, Pamela Cristina [2], NUNES, Letícia Monteiro [3], REHDER, Giovanna de Souza [4], MELO, Natalia Sayuri [5], SILVA, Gabriella Braga Dias da [6], MENDES, Matheus Passos [7]

ABREU, Liliane Alcântara de. Et al. The meritocratic discourse as a sociocultural element: analysis of the film “The Pursuit of Happyness”. Revista Científica Multidisciplinar Núcleo do Conhecimento. Year. 07, Ed. 04, Vol. 04, p. 46-66. April 2022. ISSN: 2448-0959, Access link:


This article aimed to research, analyze and produce a brief theoretical survey from the perspective of Social Psychology from the film “The Pursuit of Happyness” (MUCCINO, 2006) and, in view of this, it is possible to perceive the reflection on who has the right to to be happy in contemporary societies. In this way, the guiding question was based on: is being happy and having decent living conditions just a matter of merit for effort? Thus, the general objective was based on detecting how the narrative of meritocracy is constructed in social relations. The hypothesis was based on the assumption that the recognition that the subject has of himself through the social spheres of valorization and merit, are processes that alienate the wealthy classes. As a methodology, the research was based mainly on the observation and analysis of the film “The Pursuit of Happyness” (MUCCINO, 2006) and on the bibliographic survey for the theoretical discussion, based on the light of Gabriel Chalita (1999), Kurt Lewin by Gérald Mailhiot (2013), Marilena Chaui (1980), as well as the concise reasoning of Ludimilla Teixeira and Liliane Abreu (2021), among others. As a result and conclusions, it was understood that the ideological driving culture has as its function the inversion and naturalization of behaviors to create and guarantee superiority relations of the dominant classes, thus generating the dichotomy between the understanding of real and utopian happiness. It was possible to understand that power, discrimination, the concept of merit and ideology are part of the same complex context for social control. Therefore, as long as the romanticized culture of extreme efforts to live well, based on meritocracy continues, there will be no real changes and the ruling classes will ensure that happiness is an eternal pursuit, without ever achieving results. Therefore, it is the changes in the vision and conception of happiness, which need to receive broad awareness.

Keywords: Culture, Happiness, Meritocracy, Psychology, Society.


This article aims at the relationship between the analysis of the American film “The Pursuit of Happyness” (MUCCINO, 2006) and theoretical points related to sociological issues that structure Social Psychology. The American cinematographic work was released in 2006 by director Gabriele Muccino and starred and produced by American actor Will Smith (other technical data can be found in the final references). The film reflects on who has the right to be happy in the light of socially disseminated meritocratic discourses and is based on the true story of Chris Gardner, a black man who lives with many financial difficulties with his family in a city in the United States. The story takes place in the year 1981. Despite the protagonist being an extremely dedicated man, even with all his efforts, he cannot improve his life or achieve what he understands as happiness.

The guiding question was based on: is being happy and having decent living conditions just a matter of merit for effort? Thus, the general objective was supported by detecting how the narrative of meritocracy is constructed in social relations. As a consequence, specific objectives have developed in understanding how cultural values ​​and beliefs are socially constructed and normatized; understand how social narratives can collaborate negatively with the reproduction of oppressive concepts, and identify whose standards and concepts are constructed, which determine what it is to be socially happy.

These initial elaborations raised the hypothesis with the assumption that the recognition that the subject has of himself through the social spheres of understanding regarding valorization and merit, are alienating processes created by the wealthy classes.

Therefore, as a methodology, the research was based on the observation and analysis of the film, as well as on the intersection with the literature review surveys for the theoretical discussion. Thus, to seek an understanding of the social behaviors presented in the film, some scholars were important. Although Marilena Chaui (1980) presents many factors about the construction of ideology that would already result in a good theoretical basis for the analysis of the film, the authors of this article felt the need to contemplate some points of questioning, which were supported by Gabriel Chalita (1999), Kurt Lewin through Gérald Mailhiot (2013), Etienne de La Boétie (2006), and Wilhelm Reich (1988). Zygmunt Bauman (2008a; 2008b; 2009) and Liliane Abreu et al. (2022) support the understanding of happiness in some contemporary societies. Furthermore, Ludimilla Teixeira and Liliane Abreu (2021) briefly reinforced the concepts of these previous authors, helping to understand the reflections presented in the film and compared with the social dichotomies about the self, the other and the place of each one, culminating in the fallacy of meritocracy . As will be presented in this article.


Psychology is the science that studies behavior, whether reflexes, conscious or unconscious. However, for the understanding of what is effectively Social Psychology, the question arises of when human behavior becomes social or not.

Chalita (1999) states that the understanding of power initially emerged as a need to organize and order social groups, being, therefore, a form of social control. Power is a phenomenon of coercion, be it physical, economic, social and psychological – force and coercion. Physical force is used in extreme cases, but it is not always necessarily that way, and may be instilled in the subjectivity of those who impose it. Sometimes, the dominating subject may use only words, or even not say anything, but within a hierarchical establishment that is dependent on something, this oppression will manifest itself.

The submission of an individual when accepting certain impositions, points the opposite side to that of the tyrant. From the perspective of the oppressed, Etienne de La Boétie (2006; apud CHALITA, 1999) considers that the dominated would enter into a process of voluntary servitude, whether or not they are aware of this position. From this, he remains as he is and remains in a state of co-participation of his own servitude out of fear. When the subject comes to understand his identity, he loses fear and gains the feeling of struggle and psychological freedom, and manifests himself to change what he is experiencing. However, La Boétie (2006) considers a counterpoint: the yoke would fulfill in some the desire to become the tyrant. This would be in agreement with the psychologist Wilhelm Reich (1988; apud CHALITA, 1999), on the social totalitarian systems of power and judgment through micro (the family, or, individual to individual) and macro (society) structures. Other authors bring the same perception about the conduction of control and power:

A cultura condiciona a visão de mundo ao ser humano e sociedades, e é criada através da repetição de comportamentos aceitos pela maioria num grupo. Quanto mais comum e inquestionável, mais absorvido é socialmente. Logo, todos os conceitos morais e éticos estariam nesse contexto, incluindo os preconceitos, as discriminações e certos tipos de violência. (TEIXEIRA; ABREU, 2021, p. 291)

Every individual has a history and that he will act as learned and established by his environment. He takes the cultural values ​​that are in his house, in his neighborhood, in his city, state and country, as if they were his, when they are not. This is where prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory behavior arise.

Kurt Lewin (apud MAILHIOT, 2013) states that the attitude in the plane of thoughts, forms the personal secrets of internal will. Behavior follows social rules and is everything that materializes in gestures, speech and actions in the social environment. So, the more intense an attitudinal content – ​​that is, thoughts and attitudes –, the greater the behavior will be.

Prejudice as an integral part of the attitude (the prejudiced attitude) materializes when the environment, for example, allows the subject to find someone who has some power and to say exactly what he thinks about his prejudices, and thus, he will behave discriminatory. This discriminatory behavior is reflected in the following actions: racist, xenophobic, pedophile, sexist or other similar jokes; in the physical aggression against someone, in the disjointed ideological comment. All these factors reaffirm the separatist abysses of groups of psychological majorities and minorities that are pointed out by Kurt Lewin (apud MAILHIOT, 2013), and propagate discourses of ideological construction as explained by Chaui (1980), distorting a truth and intensifying constructions laden with prejudices and discrimination.

Lewin ainda diz que quando uma criança ou adulto assume a responsabilidade da discriminação por um determinado aspecto, é quando ele passa a desenvolver o sentimento de ódio de si. O ódio de si e do próprio grupo não é porque se tenha necessariamente problemas psicológicos, mas porque o sujeito não quer fazer parte do grupo discriminado (para fugir de bullying, por exemplo). Essas pessoas estabelecem o desejo de parecer fisicamente, participar e/ou integralizar o grupo privilegiado da maioria psicológica. Portanto, o desenvolvimento do ódio pelo próprio grupo que pertence, é pela certeza de seu futuro ser instável e sem um status específico. (TEIXEIRA; ABREU, 2021, p. 290)

The concept of ideology presented by Chaui (1980) in his work explores that man produces ideas that try to explain and understand individuality, society and nature and the supernatural.

Essas ideias ou representações, no entanto, tenderão a esconder dos homens o modo real como suas relações sociais foram produzidas e a origem das formas sociais de exploração econômica e de dominação política. Esse ocultamento da realidade social chama-se ideologia. Por seu intermédio, os homens legitimam as condições sociais de exploração e de dominação, fazendo com que pareçam verdadeiras e justas. (CHAUI, 1980, p. 08-09)

Over the years and with the evolution of studies and theories, there were changes in the term, which started to have two meanings, the first of “philosophical-scientific activity that studies the formation of ideas from the observation of the relationships between the human body and the human body” the environment, taking sensations as a starting point” (CHAUI, 1980, p. 11). The second understanding is the ideology that also comes to reflect a set of theoretical ideas elaborated by the thinkers of a certain time, and as an agreement of common sense.

The author discusses this question about the real, being a consonance of meaning with the physical material. Values are differentiated for individuals, and the greater the social differentiation, the more evident this is, as can be observed in hierarchical positions.

A definição da liberdade como igual direito à escolha é a ideia burguesa da liberdade e não a realidade histórico-social da liberdade. Dissemos que a ideologia é resultado da luta de classes e que tem por função esconder a existência dessa luta. Podemos acrescentar que o poder ou a eficácia da ideologia aumenta quanto maior for sua capacidade para ocultar a origem da divisão social em classes e a luta de classes. (CHAUI, 1980, p. 34)

Ideology would hide social relations and leave something on a veiled plane, inverting reality with the function of creating and maintaining relations of domination between classes. Chaui (1980) cites that when Marx and Engels write about ideology, in principle it appears as false knowledge. Another characteristic is the naturalization of the process. Ideology naturalizes and leads questions to the plane of human nature. The discourse on a factoid happiness is found in this ideological construction.

Chaui (1980) states that Marx arrives at a definition that ideology are ideas of the dominant classes, therefore, they have the function of creating and guaranteeing relations of domination, and this is what makes ideas natural. Therefore, the ruling class defines the models of what it is to be happy and how it can be achieved, such as the ideal of affective and family relationships, the ideal of work, the ideal of a career, and so on.

Individuals justify their actions with arguments naturalizing and universalizing their acts, their behavior in terms of ideas, dissociating their person, their act and the consequence of their act. In addition to producing means and forms of survival, people also produce ideas about their existence, and they often hide and invert reality, and especially about third parties. These ideas come from the ruling class that attributes stereotypes and camouflages relations of domination and exploitation. This leads some subjects to repress and reproduce the ideas of a class that are not theirs. (CHALITA, 1999; TEIXEIRA; ABREU, 2021)

Thus, the subject appropriates and legitimizes the ideas as his own, taking away the value of the other and of himself. This appears very clearly in the film that will be analyzed from the point of view of meritocracy and the paths that make someone deserving or not of better living conditions. The denial of one’s condition and the attack on one’s fellow man take, for example, the same proportions as the discourse of meritocracy. So, meritocracy is not a liar, but it is a false idea, because not all people will have some spark of opportunity to propel them forward and adding their own effort and hard work, to reach the same condition of class change.

Therefore, the starting point of this complex system would be in social relations. These relationships are produced by the people themselves when creating, recreating or reproducing the actions. Thus, individuals start from social relationships to understand what, how and why people think, speak and act in certain ways.

Chaui (1980) states that if social relationships are actions produced by people, they generate praxis. Praxis is a word of Greek origin that defines practical conduct or action as opposed to a theory. It would be the triad of what a subject understands about a given phenomenon: the actor, the act and the consequence of the act. The three are inseparable, as the individual usually justifies his actions with ideological arguments, naturalizing the situation in a simpler way. This would occur, because behaviors are dissociated from the person and entered the scope of ideas, and, thus, reality is disguised and inverted in the face of their act and its consequence.

Este “fazer-se-uns-aos-outros” é a práxis social e significa: 1) que as classes sociais não estilo feitas e acabadas pela sociedade, mas que estão se fazendo umas às outras por sua ação e que esta ação produz o movimento da sociedade civil; 2) que o conjunto das práticas sociais, tanto materiais quanto espirituais, fazendo os indivíduos existirem como seres contraditórios, os faz membros de uma classe social, isto é, participantes de formas diferenciadas de existência social, determinada pelas relações econômicas de produção, pelas instituições sócio-políticas e pelas ideias ou representações. O sujeito da história, portanto, são as classes sociais. (CHAUI, 1980, p. 31)

Therefore, it can be understood that power, discrimination, merit and ideology would all be part of the same complex context of coercion and distortions with the same final aspect: social control.


The film “The Pursuit of Happyness” (MUCCINO, 2006) deals with issues such as: racism, social value, discourses on meritocracy, social praxis, and, of course, ideologies. The narrative is based on the true story of Chris Gardner, a man who at that time would be around 40 years old, married and with a 5-year-old son. Chris is a man of black ethnicity and lives with a lot of financial difficulties with his family in the city of San Francisco (USA), in 1981. Despite being extremely hardworking, he cannot overcome the difficulties that present themselves.

In some moments Chris narrates the story telling that he separates his life by phases, considering the events of the past, present and questioning some conceptions about the future. The idea of ​​separating his life into phases emphasizes the character’s evolution and his professional and personal life constructions.

On the issue of time, one part that stands out is when Chris goes to the homeless shelter and reassures his son all the time that it will only be a few nights, and then the child asks when they will come home.

A produção e superação das contradições são o movimento da história. A produção e superação das contradições revelam que o real se realiza como luta.

7) um trabalho filosófico que diferencia imediato e mediato, abstrato e concreto, aparência e ser. Imediato, abstrato e aparência são sinônimas; não significam irrealidade e falsidade, mas sim o modo pelo qual uma realidade se oferece como algo dado, como um fato positivo dotado de características próprias e já prontas, ordenado, classificado e relacionado por nosso entendimento. (CHAUI, 1980, p. 17)

The film’s title denotes an ideology: “The Pursuit of Happyness” (MUCCINO, 2006). This title reinforces the idea that not only is it necessary to be happy, but happiness is also a meritocratic status that needs to be sought, conquered and deserved. Chaui (1980) comments on how ideas, within an ideology, end up becoming tools, not for original explanations, but as a strengthening of social dynamics.

Um dos traços fundamentais da ideologia consiste, justamente, em tomar as idéias como independentes da realidade histórica e social, de modo a fazer com que tais idéias expliquem aquela realidade, quando na verdade é essa realidade que torna compreensíveis as idéias elaboradas. (CHAUI, 1980, p. 5)

The film deals subliminally with the invisibility of marginalized people. In the first two minutes, it shows a busy street, white and well-dressed individuals walking from one side to the other, with a homeless person lying on the ground, and people walking past him without seeing him. The invisibility of some clashing with the happiness of others.

Chris met his father when he was 28 years old, and because of that, he has a strong desire to be a father present in his son’s life. However, friction with his wife is frequent, as he does not have a steady job and spends his time trying to sell bone density scanners to local clinics and doctors in hospitals. With his own resources, he acquired several of these equipments to try to be an entrepreneur, but he couldn’t sell them and with that his apartment was full of these scanners. An expensive product, aimed at a very specific medical audience. So he had to go out every day and go to hospitals to try to sell them. His work affected all areas of his life and caused conflicts with his wife. In this way, the film delicately portrays social invisibility and how capitalism influences society, and consequently, the protagonist’s life.

The first plot twist was when the character, while going out another day to try to sell his product, had a glimpse of a happy professional future, when he came across an insurance stockbroker who was parking his luxury sports car. in front of a big company in the city. Chris asked what he needed to do to get the man’s job, and the realtor informed him that he just needed to be good with numbers and people.

Gardner stopped for a few moments looking at the faces of the people leaving that building and saw only happiness. He also wanted that for himself, understanding that happiness would be something to seek and that it might never be achieved, but he would not give up on pursuing it. From that moment on, the plot develops around the protagonist’s quest to change his life by changing his work. In this aspect, Chaui (1980) presents the concept of the modern free man that is present in the film and in current societies. This man is divided into two: the bourgeois and the worker.

Ora, essas duas faces do trabalho também estarão divididas em duas figuras diferentes: o lado livre e espiritual do trabalho é o burguês, que determina os fins, enquanto o lado mecânico e corpóreo do trabalho é o trabalhador, simples meio para fins que lhe são estranhos. De um lado, a liberdade. De outro, a “necessidade”, isto é, o autômato. (CHAUI, 1980, p. 06-07)

The relationship between classes is also highlighted in the film. The protagonist and his wife are workers, service providers and the social positions in which they occupy demand a lot from their time and lives. It is necessary to pay the rent, pay the bills; it is necessary to survive in contrast to that dynamic.

Dissemos que a ideologia é resultado da luta de classes e que tem por função esconder a existência dessa luta. Podemos acrescentar que o poder ou a eficácia da ideologia aumenta quanto maior for sua capacidade para ocultar a origem da divisão social em classes e a luta de classes. (CHAUI, 1980, p. 34)

Chauí (1980, p. 35) reinforces that “Ideology is the process by which the ideas of the ruling class become ideas of all social classes, they become dominant ideas”. In the film, the most striking question that the protagonist asked, which simply translates one of the effects of this process on the individual, was: “Everyone seemed so happy to me. Why couldn’t I be like them?” (MUCCINO, 2006).

It is worth citing here an aspect of the Hegelian conception. In a schematic way, the author considers that Hegel’s vision can be characterized as “a philosophical work to understand the origin and meaning of reality as Culture” (CHAUI, 1980, p. 15). In the film, at different times the character wonders where she is and how to find happiness, bringing to her culture the whole question that it is necessary to have something to be happy, and that happiness begins with the achievement of a stable job.

Cultura são as relações dos homens com a Natureza pelo desejo, pelo trabalho e pela linguagem, as instituições sociais, o Estado, a religião, a arte, a ciência, a filosofia. É o real enquanto manifestação do Espírito. Não se trata, segundo Hegel, de dizer que o Espírito produz a Cultura, mas sim de que ele é a Cultura, pois ele existe encarnado nela. (CHAUI, 1980, p. 15)

He applies for a job as an intern at this company. He fills out a form, but only twenty people would be selected, and of those, only one would be hired. The internship would still last six months and there would be no remuneration (but that part, he would only find out later). In addition, he detained one of the general partners to show his interest. In one of these attempts, he took a taxi with the director and ended up impressing him by having assembled the colored cube which no one could at that time.

The friction between Chris and his wife increased proportionally with the bills that came in, until she effectively leaves the house taking the child with her. He despairs, as he is a very hardworking man and a devoted father, even more so than his own mother. Gardner retrieves the child, but simultaneously receives an eviction order. At the same time, he receives a call from the director of the company that had tried the internship, arranging an interview with all the partners of the brokerage firm.

Chaui (1980) explains that culture configures men’s relationships with nature through desire, work and language, social institutions, the State, religion, art, science and philosophy. It is the real as a manifestation of the spirit. According to Hegel (apud CHAUI, 1980), it is not a matter of saying that this spirit produces culture, but rather that it is culture, since it exists integrated into it.

Unhappiness is also portrayed in the film, represented by the protagonist’s wife who, living with so many difficulties, preferred to end that love relationship, because she was not happy. She wanted her husband to earn a good salary, to have a good job, to repeat the pattern socially demarcated by the wealthier and more successful classes. That they had money and goods, so that, in the social conception in which she lived, she would bring happiness to her family.

One can agree with the author that the ideas of the ruling class end up becoming universal ideas. She claims that:

A ideologia consiste precisamente na transformação das ideias da classe dominante em idéias dominantes para a sociedade como um todo, de modo que a classe que domina no plano material (econômico, social e político) também domina no plano espiritual (das ideias). (CHAUI, 1980, p. 36)

When we go back to the issue of happiness and all the feelings that go through in the film, what stood out a lot and diverges a little from what individuals as a culture are used to, is the fact that the character is a much more present father and takes on the role of the mother, taking care of the child practically alone and struggling not to let the child lack anything. In Western culture, the imposition is that exclusively the woman takes care of the child, while the man goes out to work, and this was the opposite in the film. It is also worth noting that the year is 1981, a period in which these social rules were still very strict in this sense, unlike the 21st century in which societies are tried to be re-educated with balance and equality of gender and family roles.

Resuming the film’s narrative, the next day, painting the apartment he lived in, in an attempt to agree to earn another week living there with his son before being evicted, Chris ends up being arrested for traffic tickets and would only be released 24 hours later, minutes before your interview for an internship vacancy. He wouldn’t have time to return home and change his clothes.

Chris runs to the real estate office full of paint and in simple household clothes. Upon entering, he tries to show self-confidence and tells the directors what happened. His performance impressed everyone, but the knowledge that he would receive nothing in return made him consider declining, but he eventually accepted. That was the only chance he had to maybe change his life. Everything happened at the same time. The ex-wife ends up deciding to move to another state, while Gardner was evicted and had to move into a motel room with his son.

A punctual moment that needs to be described is when the protagonist was playing basketball with his son. The kid was having a hard time shooting the ball, and Chris says without malice that the kid would never be good at basketball, but he would definitely be good at other things. The child immediately stops playing, and Gardner realizes that he was projecting his frustrations and repeating what everyone, directly or indirectly, was telling him (even his wife). He immediately rectifies his speech and tells the child, “Never let anyone tell you you’re not good at something. Not even me. If you have a dream, you have to go after it. People can’t win, and they also say you can’t win. If you want something, run after it Point” (MUCCINO, 2006).

At that moment, Gardner presented the behavior that he corroborates with the authors previously presented, such as La Boétie (2006; apud CHALITA, 1999), Lewin (apud MAILHIOT, 2013) and Chaui (1980). He revealed the desire to get out of his path of struggle and invisibility, trying to ascend to the status of class and people that directly or indirectly reinforced that he was not good enough and only suited for inferior jobs. Also, he showed the weakness of the desire to belong by ignoring his own historicity, and that of those who are equal. Furthermore, he expressed the behavior of the dominated who submissively accepts the yoke with those who claim him and make him believe that he is servile, endorsing all the ideological concepts that someone does not overcome difficulties due to incapacity and for not being good enough.

This means that when Chris reinforced the same speeches and actions coming from the ruling classes, from the psychological majority and who exercise power through violence and submission, he showed a hatred of himself and his condition, because in fact he would like to be enjoying the freedom, strength and privileges which these aggressors possessed, and he himself feared that this – all kinds of aggression and rejection – would continue to happen to him. Then, as a defense, he reversed and attacked without even realizing it right away with an unassuming relegation rant.

Chris showed this little weakness and reproduced it in his son. However, he had the perception and immediate psychological strength to understand his mistake and the depth of his situation, to the point of rectifying his words and fully assuming his alienated behavior. This greatly demonstrates the size of your strength and psychological clarity of yourself and your surroundings.

After three months, they too were being evicted from this motel room for nonpayment. That night, with nowhere to go with the child and carrying only a suitcase, one last scanner, her son’s birthday ball and a toy doll, Chris and the little one slept in the subway station bathroom. He also had, in the midst of so much pain, the impulse to bring comfort to his son, using his imagination, creating a playful context and playing that they were sleeping in a cave to protect themselves from dinosaurs.

The episode of the night in the subway bathroom has some possibilities of analysis, which are related to the text by Chaui (1980), starting with reality and its distortion. In this case, Chris’ playful insight turned into something beneficial, as it was in this way that the character found a way to assuage his son’s suffering. But not only that. Hegel (apud CHAUI, 1980) calls this idea a concept, and soon after, he describes that history as a moved temporal process, is made by divisions or negations. Returning to the film, one can observe the father’s denial of not telling his son what was actually happening, and that they did not have a shelter to spend that night.

A sociedade civil é a negação da família. Isto não significa que a família deixou de existir, mas significa apenas que a realidade da família não depende dela própria, mas é determinada pelas relações da sociedade civil. Isto significa que o indivíduo social não se define como membro da família (como pai, mãe, filho, irmão), mas se define por algo que desestrutura a família: as classes sociais. (CHAUI, 1980, p. 18)

Again, it turns to the family context, and in this retreat it is evident when Hegel (apud CHAUI, 1980) says that what disrupts the family are the extreme difficulties imposed on certain social classes. This was clearly portrayed in the film, when the mother moves to have a better job opportunity, and, on the other hand, the father who cannot sell the machines, in addition to not getting a job, goes through several conflicts such as having nowhere to go live or what to eat, leading him to great despair. This family fits within Hegel’s descriptions in the formal class and reviewed by the author.

A análise da mercadoria revelará, por exemplo, que há mais mercadorias do que supúnhamos à primeira vista, pois um elemento fundamental do modo de produção capitalista, o trabalhador, que aparece como um ser humano, é, na verdade, uma mercadoria – ele vende no mercado sua força-de-trabalho. (CHAUI, 1980, p. 19)

After that night, Chris and his son spent the remaining two or three months of their internship living in homeless shelters. And every day he had to be very quick and efficient in his work, to be able to pick up his son from daycare and get to the shelter on time to secure a bed. In one of those moments of rush, the boy lost his only doll (Captain America), which served as a point of psychological support.

Chris also lost his scanner equipment twice, and that made him desperate, as it was the only way he could get any money to survive. Even the value of money itself took on a significance of gigantic dimensions, for five dollars for a big company tycoon was not a considerable sum, whereas for Chris it meant lunch for himself and his son. At this point, one can see again from another perspective, the aspect of the real by Chaui (1980) about the intertwining of the material physical, with the meaning it has. Culture prints semantics for the body, for products, for food, and individuals often end up adopting this notion and taking it for themselves. And how these meanings are structured will depend on the subjectivity of each one.

Moving on: on the internship, Chris was the only black person. The team leader was constantly asking him for jobs that were not part of his job, like getting coffee or water, and even parking a car. This caused Gardner to also disrupt his productivity and concentration towards all nineteen other colleagues. In the midst of so many things, so many sequential misadventures, and still the desperation to try to get money from his efforts outside the internship context, Chris could only think “Who would cause disorder in our harmony?” (MUCCINO, 2006), but went on.

Finally, on the last day of his internship, and believing he would be dropped, Chris is told that the next morning would be his first time as a full-time employee. It was his moment of victory, and what he narrated was “that little part called happiness” (MUCCINO, 2006). The film ends with the account that Gardner set up his own brokerage five years later and, in 2006, sold part of it in a multimillion-dollar transaction.

The film’s message, while hopeful, has a hidden ideology behind it: that if everyone tries hard enough, they will achieve what they want, which defines meritocracy. Another interesting point is when the protagonist tries to change the social role he had, but was repressed by society itself. The reality is that stories like Chris Gardner’s are exceptions; and not because people don’t make enough effort, but because social dynamics don’t allow it.

When reflecting on the work context, Chris worked hard as an intern for six months, he had to dedicate himself to getting the job and during this period he put in all the effort and commitment to achieve the goals (personal and work). This effort beyond the normal is brought by Chaui (1980), expressing the ideas of Hegel and Marx about labor, the ideology of work, the commodity, the system of working and receiving a salary, working and receiving for that service provided.

At first glance, the film’s central message would be about hope, effort, and overcoming. But, on closer observation and analysis, it is possible to perceive the ideology distorting reality, imposing the flawed idea of meritocracy and that with only effort, it is possible to be a winner. The author comments on the important people in our society:

História dos “grandes homens”, dos “grandes feitos”, das “grandes descobertas”, dos “grandes progressos”, a ideologia nunca nos diz o que são esses “grandes”. Grandes em quê? Grandes por quê? Grandes em relação a quê? No entanto, o saber histórico nos dirá que esses “grandes”, agentes da história e do progresso, são os “grandes e poderosos”, isto é, os dominantes, cuja “grandeza” depende sempre da exploração e dominação dos “pequenos”. Aliás, a própria ideia de que os outros são os “pequenos” já é um pacto que fazemos com a ideologia dominante. (CHAUI, 1980, p. 47)

When reflecting on all these aspects of unified theorization, it is still possible to add other thoughts on this theme of what happiness is in many contemporary societies. Abreu et al. (2022) identified in an analytical research with some digital influencers, their followers and haters, social behaviors directly linked to the understanding of what it is to be happy in the present day of the 21st century with the advent of the internet.

Quando nos questionamos no início das observações, por qual razão milhões de pessoas são seguidores dessas mulheres ou de tantas outras e outros influenciadores digitais?, adentramos  em reflexões que nunca chegariam em uma conclusão totalmente verdadeira sem a investigação da motivação de cada seguidor individualmente, suas influências socioculturais-históricas, seus sonhos. Porém, algo em comum e mais amplo pode unir esses indivíduos. Poder-se-ia pensar em uma hipótese generalista, que eles sejam movidos por essa busca, tão própria e eterna da humanidade pela felicidade. Por isso que tantas pessoas seguem, curtem, comentam, e compartilham vídeos dessas outras pessoas. (ABREU et al., 2022, n.p)

As a result, the researchers understood that the triad of individuals involved (influencers, followers and haters) would be in a narcissistic symbiosis driven by the fear of exclusion and invisibility, and an intense search for the discourse of what happiness is and being happy. This appeared many times in the narratives of some of the analyzed influencers, generating in the followers the psychic and behavioral apprehension of a meritocratic process.

This study brought in many points the understanding that the public and societies in general are effectively instigated to consume a certain way of living to be recognized, accepted and loved, but as a result, this is not achieved and generates frustrations and frustrations generalized complexes. See that the behavior of crossing meritocracy and social/personal happiness is not a current advent, as in the story of Chris Gardner, but is still sold and consumed today as an idealized and often unattainable life. However, it is propagated by spheres that dictate how and what it is to be happy, and these assumptions are potentiated in dissemination in the face of the advent of the internet. “The greater the influencer’s projection and with more companies offering support, the more advised by marketing professionals they become, being also helped in the creation and maintenance of content that dictates the concepts of what happiness is”. (ABREU et al., 2022, n.p)

The authors further narrate:

As influencers possuem uma ferramenta incrível que poderia ser utilizada positivamente como meio de educação, ativismo e inspiração para novos pensamentos sociais. Contudo, a manipulação mercadológica para controle da sociedade que busca por uma felicidade montada, unida a uma série de fatores, inclusive medo de exclusão, e justamente por cada sujeito talvez não saber quem ele mesmo é, conduz o usuário/seguidor a fatidicamente manter-se nesse processo ilusório de escolhas que não são as dele, e muitas vezes fúteis, deturpadas e até perigosas. Mas sim, a decisão é totalmente individual, pois todos podem fazer a sua escolha final. (ABREU et al., 2022, n.p)

These researchers cite the author Zygmunt Bauman (2008a; 2008b; 2009) to further support their analysis, which will be punctually brought here. For this philosopher, exemption from social recognition leads individuals to a feeling of deprivation, frustration and inadequacy. Happiness is represented in what you have; what you can boast about. Dichotomously, those who do not achieve this conduct, even because they suffer sociopolitical, economic and cultural processes of remaining in servitude status, are labeled again within the meritocratic process: they did not try hard enough. (ABREU et al., 2022)

Abreu et al. (2022, n.p) mention that “consumption is not only in products, but also in ideas, profiles and lifestyles”, which is one of Bauman’s (2008a; 2008b; 2009) thoughts about the behavioral construction of what is be happy. People who find themselves on higher scales can be seen as the closest model to happiness, as Chris Gardner did when he came across people smiling and carefree in downtown Wall Street.

Bauman (2009) diz que a energia do desejo da felicidade pode ser dividida em dois tipos de forças: centrípeta (de fora para o centro) ou centrífuga (do centro para fora). Assim, para o autor, a busca da felicidade pode ser resumida na preocupação com o próprio bem-estar do indivíduo, ou, diante de sua preocupação com o bem-estar do outro. As duas alternativas, porém, não são necessariamente contraditórias – podem trabalhar juntas com nenhum ou quase nenhum conflito. No entanto, se há uma relação correlacionada, é a da força centrífuga para com a força centrípeta, onde ser bom com o outro reforça o sentimento de estar bem consigo. (ABREU et al., 2022, n.p)

Not only is self-image and power (linked to the economic factor) sold as an icon of happiness, but time also generates a sentence of interconnection to the understanding of happiness. Note that Chris also did not have this time space, being in a constant rush to deal with his problems, and trying to solve them. (ABREU et al., 2022)

Alain Ehrenberg (apud BAUMAN, 2008b, p. 121-122) explains that “the most common human sufferings nowadays tend to develop from an excess of possibilities, and not from a profusion of prohibitions, as happened in the past ”. This author narrates exactly this context in which expressions such as having time, lack of time and gaining time are socially received as factors to be fulfilled, and those unable to achieve such requested purposes are seen as being unfit (ABREU et al. , 2022). This could also be seen in Chris’ story, in the episode during his internship, because even though he was busy with his duties like everyone else in competition, he had to make space and time to serve coffee or water, and without getting into the issue already reported previously on the ethnic factor.

Esse imediatismo é mostrado na impaciência das pessoas diante da mínima falha do outro indivíduo, por menor que seja, esquecendo-se de todos os outros valores positivos que essa pessoa possa ter. Nesse ponto, o autor relaciona isso com a busca pela felicidade, já que se o sujeito tem tudo o que quer, não consegue ser feliz, então, isso seria visto socialmente como a culpa sendo inteiramente dele. Portanto, ser emancipado para ter, falar e fazer tudo o que se quer, estaria no patamar da ostentação de mostrar que é feliz, e sem isso, o sujeito seria um total derrotado. Conforme Bauman (2008b), daí viria a necessidade de o indivíduo mostrar a todo tempo que tem objetos (ou status) e que é feliz, mesmo sem ser ou ter. A perda de qualquer um desses fatores o conduz à derrocada da autoestima diante da percepção de humilhação social. (ABREU et al., 2022, n.p)

For all these factors, Bauman (2008b) saw that there would be a loss of the original identity of each individual, and this is what would generate more intensely the visual and behavioral standardization in societies, and proportionally leading to the intensification of the need to distance oneself from contact with others face by technological processes. The bond with the other would become less and less necessary, in the same way as more and more people living inconsequentially only the present, without elaborating the thought of critical analysis on several determinants of the same theme, and strongly following what is set as default to keep you happy. (ABREU et al., 2022)

As long as the dominant ideology exists, stories like Chris Gardner’s will be sold as examples of inspiration, but with a strong emphasis on meritocracy to hide a romanticized and normatized social reality such as rape culture, racism, homophobia and all many other structural concepts of ideological inversion. Chris’ case is an extremely rare exception of class ascent, and despite its merits, it is not a portrait of the reality of the majority demographic.


The ideological driving culture has as its function the inversion and naturalization of behaviors to create and guarantee superiority relations of the dominant classes. Factors such as prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory behavior, in addition to power management, would also be included in this process.

The guiding question of this article – is being happy and having decent living conditions just a matter of merit for effort? – could be answered in a single word: no. However, the answer is obviously not that simplistic. Socially, individuals are induced to accept the fact of their downfall, remaining in a state of subservience and judgment. In contemporary times, the processes of these conductions (and conditions) are perpetuated and are not different from those experienced by Chris Gardner, protagonist of the film chosen for analysis. Even today, societies are influenced by ideological discourses for mass control and conduct, therefore, romanticizing and naturalizing each behavioral action that individuals exhibit, presenting what it is to be happy within the standards of the high spheres.

It was possible to actually detect how the narrative of meritocracy is constructed in social relations, its unfolding as values ​​and cultural beliefs that build and regulate social narratives that commonly collaborate negatively with the reproduction of oppressive concepts. The same concept that oppresses, dictates the paths of social happiness. Therefore, the team was able to verify the initial hypothesis that individuals recognize themselves and others regarding appreciation and merit, based on alienating processes created by the wealthy classes.

Enabling this discussion actually reveals a dichotomy about the theme of the film. On the one hand, the story motivates those who find themselves in desperate situations, like the character, and who overcame countless adversities within his personal and social universe. On the other hand, history was presented as a meritocratic movement and with the social discourse that every individual who puts a lot of effort will win and ascend.

The fine line between the discourse of inspiration and that of meritocracy hides social realities through the bias of ideology, since for millions of people, no matter how hard they try or struggle, they never change their standard. However, Chris Gardner’s psychic strength is indisputable, as is his psychological clarity in realizing even his weakness in reproducing in his son – in the episode of the basketball game – his own alienated social condition. He briefly understood his condition from oppressed to oppressor. He noticed and immediately redid his speech, including himself changing his posture. This made him more aware of his social context and of himself, and as a result, more persevering, courageous and skillful.

This relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed, both addressed in the film and in the chosen theorizing works, and which is reflected in multiple different themes, provides the reflection that in today’s society, only this binary dynamic is possible: the individual is the oppressor or is he a overwhelmed. A game of power and submission that are present in various social contexts that prevent everyone, as a human species, to evolve psychically as individuals and society.

If the romanticized culture of extreme efforts to live well and with dignity continues, there will be no real changes and the ruling class will guarantee that happiness is an eternal pursuit and without results, or that they are only as palliative compensation, but, again, an illusion.

These are small changes of vision that need to receive broad awareness, as they speak a lot about the positioning of the perpetuation of ideological concepts, but they also call attention to the fact that individuals must be attentive to the discourses, behaviors and actions that permeate these conducts of social control in macro ( society) and micro (subject to subject) cosmos.

Furthermore, Social Psychology as a science must not only delve into studies on this behavior in societies, but also work to find new alternatives in order to minimize, and who knows, one day, remedy the situation exposed in the film.


ABREU, Liliane Alcântara de; MELO, Natalia Sayuri; SOARES, Pamela Cristina; NUNES, Letícia Monteiro; SILVA, Gabriella Braga Dias da; MENDES, Matheus Passos. As influencers digitais e a autoimagem como produto de comportamento de consumo. Revista Científica Multidisciplinar Núcleo do Conhecimento. Ano. 07, Ed. 01, Vol. 05, pp. 05-33. Janeiro de 2022. ISSN: 2448-0959. Disponível em: <>. Acesso em: 11 mar. 2022. DOI: <10.32749/>

À PROCURA da felicidade (The pursuit of happyness). Direção de Gabriele Muccino. Produção: James Lassiter, Jason Blumenthal, Steve Tisch, Teddy Zee, Todd Black, Will Smith. Estados Unidos: Columbia Pictures Corporation, Overbrook Entertainment, 2006. 1 DVD. (117 min.).

BAUMAN, Zygmunt. A arte da vida. Tradução Carlos Alberto Medeiros. Versão digital. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 2009.

____. Medo Líquido. Tradução Carlos Alberto Medeiros. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 2008a.

____. Vida para consumo: a transformação das pessoas em mercadoria. Tradução Carlos Alberto Medeiros. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 2008b.

CHALITA, Gabriel Benedito Isaac. O poder. 2. ed. rev. São Paulo: Saraiva, 1999.

CHAUI, Marilena de Souza. O que é ideologia? São Paulo: Brasiliense, 2010.

LA BOÉTIE, Étienne de. Discurso Sobre a Servidão Voluntária. (1549). Versão para eBookLibris eBooksBrasil. L.C.C. Publicações Eletrônicas, 2006. Disponível em: <>. Acesso em: 18 out. 2018.

MAILHIOT, Gérald Bernard. Dinâmica e Gênese dos Grupos: atualidade das descobertas de Kurt Lewin. Petrópolis: Vozes, 2013.

REICH, Wilhelm. Psicologia das Massas do Fascismo. 2. ed. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 1988.

TEIXEIRA, Ludimilla Santana; ABREU, Liliane Alcântara de. Os desafios da educação em direitos humanos no século XXI: a contribuição do MUCB no autoconhecimento e desenvolvimento sociopolítico de mulheres através das redes sociais. In: Anais de Artigos Completos do V CIDHCoimbra 2020 – Volume 3 / César Augusto R. Nunes et. al. (orgs.) [et al.] – Campinas / Jundiaí: Editora Brasílica / Edições Brasil / Editora Fibra, 2021. p. 287-300. ISBN: 978-65-89537-03-8 / 978-65-86051-32-2. Disponível em: <>. Acesso em: 30 jun. 2021.

[1] Specialist in Pedagogical Neuroscience from AVM Educacional/UCAM/RJ; specialist in Art Therapy in Education and Health at AVM Educacional/UCAM/RJ; specialist in Behavior and Consumption Research from Faculdade SENAI CETIQT RJ; specialist in Visual Arts from UNESA/RJ; Bachelor in Design from Faculdade SENAI CETIQT RJ. Bachelor in Psychology at UNIP/SP.

[2] Bachelor in Psychology at UNIP/SP.

[3] Bachelor in Psychology at UNIP/SP.

[4] Bachelor in Psychology at UNIP/SP.

[5] Bachelor in Social Communication from Faculdade Cásper Líbero/SP. Bachelor in Psychology at UNIP/SP.

[6] Bachelor in Psychology at UNIP/SP.

[7] Bachelor in Psychology at UNIP/SP.

Sent: July, 2021.

Approved: April, 2022.

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