Level Up Your Life: 12 Must-watch Self-improvement Documentaries

self-improvement documentaries
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Dive into these inspiring self-improvement documentaries packed with practical tips and powerful stories to jumpstart your life journey!

Looking to upgrade your life but feeling overwhelmed by self-help books and generic advice? Movies – especially those based on real-life events – offer a unique and powerful alternative to learning and growth. Filled with inspiring journeys and practical takeaways, the following 12 self-improvement documentaries should empower you to unlock your potential, overcome challenges, and achieve your goals!


  • This article offers a diverse selection of 12 documentaries designed to inspire your self-development journey. The films explore various themes like the power of positive thinking (The Secret), achieving mastery through dedication (Jiro Dreams of Sushi), and the pursuit of happiness (Happy, Expedition Happiness).
  • In addition, you will also find movies that challenge perspectives (Icarus) and showcase the power of minimalism and purpose-driven living (Living on One Dollar, Minimalism).

The Secret (2006)

Genres: Documentary/Action

Rating: PG

Duration: 1h 31m

Whatever is going on in your mind is what you are attracting.

The Secret” (2006) delves into the intriguing concept of the Law of Attraction – which suggests that our life trajectory can be shaped by the focus of our thoughts. Through a series of interviews with a diverse array of figures (including authors, philosophers, and scientists), the documentary presents a tapestry of inspirational anecdotes that illustrate the purported workings of this law.

Beyond its role as a mere informational piece, the movie also serves as a potent motivational tool for viewers to cultivate a more optimistic mindset and harness the power of belief in manifesting their aspirations. While not devoid of controversy, it stimulates critical reflection on the influence of mindset, prompting audiences to scrutinize their own beliefs and attitudes toward personal success and fulfillment.

Whether one subscribes wholeheartedly to the tenets of the Law of Attraction or approaches it with a skeptical curiosity, “The Secret” offers a thought-provoking exploration of the human psyche’s capacity to shape reality. Its rich tapestry of narratives and thought-provoking insights make it a compelling watch.

Self-improvement documentaries

Man on Wire (2008)

Genres: Documentary/Thriller

Rating: PG-13

Duration: 1h 34m

Life should be lived on the edge of life.

Man on Wire” (2008) weaves together a captivating narrative that unfolds like a gripping heist thriller. It tells the extraordinary tale of Philippe Petit’s daring tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in 1974, a feat that defied both physical and psychological boundaries. Through a masterful blend of interviews, archival footage, re-enactments, and photographs from the era, the film immerses viewers in the breathtaking spectacle of Petit’s audacious endeavor, delivering an exhilarating cinematic experience.

Aside from its sheer entertainment value, “Man on Wire” also delves into themes of passion and perseverance. Philippe Petit is depicted as a compelling protagonist, his unyielding dedication to his craft and his relentless pursuit of an impossible dream serving as a touching testament to the indomitable human spirit. As the narrative unfolds, it becomes a stirring exploration of the triumph of artistic vision over fear and adversity, inspiring audiences to confront their own challenges with courage and determination.

By inviting viewers to contemplate their own personal “wire” to walk and the towering aspirations they aspire to conquer, the documentary becomes a poignant reflection on the universal journey of self-improvement.

Read more: Self-reflection Questions – Toolkit for Life Pilgrims

I Am (2010)

Genres: Documentary/Drama

Duration: 1h 20m

An ocean, a rainforest, the human body, are all co-operatives. The redwood tree doesn’t take all the soil and nutrients, just what it needs to grow. A lion doesn’t kill every gazelle, just one. We have a term for something in the body when it takes more than its share, we call it: cancer.

Directed by Tom Shadyac, “I Am” (2010) is based on his own transformative odyssey following a life-altering accident; as such, it serves as a springboard for reflections on the essence of life and the pursuit of happiness. Through a series of thought-provoking questions, the film challenges viewers to contemplate the inherent flaws in our societal structures and encourages introspection into individual roles within these frameworks.

“I Am” features an extensive roster of interviews with prominent intellectuals and spiritual leaders, including luminaries such as Desmond Tutu and Noam Chomsky. These diverse perspectives interweave to form a rich tapestry of insights into human nature, materialism, and the intrinsic value of human connections. As the documentary delves into these themes, it ignites a collective examination of our societal paradigms, urging viewers to reconsider their priorities and the broader implications of their actions.

Despite occasional critique, “I Am” has garnered commendation for its moral compass and the beacon of hope it extends to its audience.

Self-improvement documentaries

Happy (2011)

Genres: Documentary/Drama

Rating: NR

Duration: 1h 13m

With happiness, the more you have, the more everyone has.

A remarkable exploration of happiness on a global scale, “Happy” (2011) invites viewers to embark on a captivating journey spanning diverse cultures and landscapes. From the vibrant streets of Kolkata to the serene swamps of Louisiana, the documentary provides a panoramic view of what elicits joy and fulfillment across different corners of the world. As such, viewers may have a taste of the multifaceted nature of happiness – as well as be challenged to expand their understanding beyond cultural boundaries.

Embedded within the narrative are scientific insights drawn from the field of positive psychology, which deal with the intricate mechanisms of happiness within the human brain. Through a meticulous examination of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, the film elucidates the physiological underpinnings of joy, enriching its exploration with empirical evidence and scholarly research. Interwoven with these scientific revelations are poignant real-life stories, each narrating a personal journey marked by triumphs and tribulations, infusing the discourse on happiness with a palpable human dimension.

“Happy” dares to confront prevalent misconceptions surrounding wealth and success, challenging viewers to reassess their definitions of genuine happiness. By underscoring the significance of social connections, community engagement, and work-life balance, the documentary offers practical implications for enhancing well-being and fostering a more fulfilling existence.

Self-development documentaries

Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)

Genres: Melodrama/Action

Rating: PG

Duration: 1h 21m

These days the first thing people want is an easy job. Then, they want lots of free time. And then, they want lots of money. But they aren’t thinking of building their skills. When you work at a place like Jiro’s, you are committing to a trade for life.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi” (2011) is a mesmerizing documentary that delves into the life and craft of Jiro Ono, an octogenarian sushi master renowned for his unparalleled dedication to perfection. Through masterful storytelling, the film offers an intimate glimpse into Jiro’s meticulous sushi-making process, which serves as a testament to his lifelong commitment to the artistry of his craft. Each frame captures the essence of his relentless pursuit of excellence – and invites viewers to ponder their own endeavors and aspire toward greatness in their respective fields.

Beyond its portrayal of Jiro’s quest for culinary perfection, the documentary serves as a compelling cultural exploration of Japanese tradition and the profound discipline ingrained within its culinary heritage. Through immersive visuals and insightful commentary, viewers are immersed in the intricacies of Japanese culinary practices, thereby gaining a deeper appreciation for the cultural nuances and philosophical underpinnings that shape Jiro’s approach to his craft. This cultural insight not only enriches the viewing experience – but also offers a broader understanding of the values of hard work and dedication.

Jiro’s unwavering commitment to his craft serves as a source of inspiration for viewers, encouraging them to reevaluate their own work ethic and approach to self-improvement.

Self-improvement documentaries on Netflix

Living on One Dollar (2013)

Genres: Documentary/Drama

Rating: NR

Duration: 56 mins

A short but deeply motivating documentary, “Living on One Dollar” (2013) presents a compelling exploration of poverty and resilience through the lens of a real-life experiment. Following the journey of four young friends who embark on a daring mission to live on a mere $1 a day for two months in rural Guatemala, the film provides a raw and unfiltered portrayal of the daily struggles faced by those entrenched in extreme poverty. Through intimate storytelling, viewers are granted unprecedented access to the lives of these individuals, gaining insight into their remarkable strength and resilience in the face of adversity.

Central to the documentary’s narrative is the impact of microcredit as a catalyst for change and empowerment within impoverished communities. By shedding light on the transformative potential of small loans in breaking the cycle of poverty, the film underscores the importance of access to financial resources in fostering sustainable livelihoods and opportunities for growth. At the same time, the movie also features a poignant cultural exchange between the filmmakers and the local community, capturing moments of heartwarming connection and mutual learning that transcend socioeconomic divides.

Despite the harsh realities depicted, “Living on One Dollar” ultimately serves as a beacon of hope, showcasing inspiring stories of individuals like Rosa, who defy the odds and seize opportunities for personal and communal upliftment. Through their resilience and determination, viewers are reminded of the inherent human capacity to effect positive change.

Best documentaries for self-improvement

Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things (2015)

Genres: Documentary

Rating: NR

Duration: 1h 19m

We’re not going to ever be able to achieve the environmental gains that we’re seeking, while still expecting our lives to be the same. We’re going have to give up a lot. The secret is that a lot of that we’re not actually going to miss.

As the name might have suggested, “Minimalism” (2015) explores the minimalist lifestyle and its profound impact on people’s lives. Through a nuanced examination of the minimalist movement, the film delves deep into the motivations and experiences of those who have chosen to embrace simplicity in their pursuit of a more meaningful existence. As they embark on their journey to live with less, viewers are invited to contemplate the nature of true fulfillment and happiness.

One of the documentary’s strengths lies in its incisive cultural commentary, which critiques the pervasive consumerist ethos of modern society. Through poignant juxtapositions such as the chaos of Black Friday shopping against the serenity of minimalist living, it highlights the stark contrast between material accumulation and inner contentment. This thought-provoking analysis prompts us to reevaluate our relationship with possessions and societal constructs of success – as well as the sources of genuine satisfaction and well-being.

The combination of exquisite cinematography, seamless editing, and a well-paced narrative results in an engaging and visually captivating viewing experience that enhances the documentary’s ability to convey its impactful message.

Self-improvement documentaries

I Am Not Your Guru (2016)

Genres: Documentary/Action

Duration: 1h 55m

Your biggest problem is you think you shouldn’t have them. ‘Cause problems are what make us grow. Problems are what sculpt our soul. Problems are what make us become more.

I Am Not Your Guru” (2016) presents a glimpse into the realm of Tony Robbins, renowned for his role as a life coach and motivational speaker. With a strong focus on Robbins’ intensive six-day seminar, “Date With Destiny,” the film gives viewers a rare opportunity to witness firsthand the inner workings of his transformative methods. Through a skillful blend of behind-the-scenes footage and candid interviews, it immerses audiences in the emotional journeys of seminar attendees, capturing moments of personal revelation and growth.

Directed by Joe Berlinger, “I Am Not Your Guru” boasts exceptional production quality, characterized by its engaging narrative structure and high-caliber cinematic execution. The film’s cultural relevance extends beyond Robbins himself, sparking nuanced discussions about the efficacy and ethics of self-help seminars.

Documentaries for personal development

Expedition Happiness (2017)

Genres: Documentary

Duration: 1h 35m

With “Expedition Happiness” (2017), viewers may observe the personal odyssey of Felix and Mogli as they undertake the ambitious endeavor of renovating a school bus and embarking on a cross-continental journey from Alaska to Mexico. Through intimate storytelling, the documentary chronicles the couple’s emotional highs and lows, providing a candid portrayal of the transformative growth they experience along the way.

The movie’s original soundtrack, composed by Mogli, adds a significant layer of emotional depth to the film and enhances its narrative resonance. As viewers accompany Felix and Mogli on their adventure, they are not only treated to stunning visuals of the diverse landscapes they traverse – but also invited to reflect on their own aspirations for self-discovery and fulfillment.

While the documentary has elicited mixed reviews, with some criticism directed at its execution and depth, it undeniably shines through its beautiful cinematography and the sense of adventure it conveys.

Self-improvement documentaries

Icarus (2017)

Genres: Documentary/Sport

Rating: NR

Duration: 2 hours

A tour de force in documentary filmmaking, “Icarus” (2017) is distinguished by its gripping narrative and meticulous investigative depth. What begins as a modest experiment by director Bryan Fogel to explore doping in sports swiftly evolves into a riveting exposé of Russia’s state-sponsored doping scandal.

Central to the film’s intrigue is the figure of Grigory Rodchenkov, the erstwhile head of Russia’s anti-doping program, whose courageous act of whistleblowing exposes the clandestine machinations of a doping regime. As the documentary unfolds, it adopts the pace and tension of a thriller, keeping viewers on the edge of their seats as the stakes escalate and Rodchenkov’s safety hangs in the balance.

Beyond its cinematic merits, the film catalyzes profound cultural and ethical discussions, provoking reflections on integrity, courage, and the pursuit of truth. As it shines a light on the moral complexities inherent in the world of sports and beyond, “Icarus” prompts viewers to confront their own values and the ethical dilemmas they may encounter in their lives.

Free Solo (2018)

Genres: Documentary/Sport

Rating: PG-13

Duration: 1h 40m

I think it’s the best thing in life to be able to take the one thing you love the most and have it, like, work out that you can make a living that way.

Free Solo” (2018) captivates audiences with its awe-inspiring cinematography and the remarkable feat it documents. It tells Alex Honnold’s unparalleled free solo climb of El Capitan, an audacious endeavor that unfolds against the backdrop of Yosemite National Park’s towering rock faces.

The film offers a gripping portrayal of human determination and focus, showcasing Honnold’s unwavering dedication, meticulous preparation, and unyielding mental fortitude required to undertake such a perilous ascent. As viewers bear witness to Honnold’s extraordinary achievement, they are drawn into a narrative that celebrates the boundless potential of the human spirit and the triumph of perseverance in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges.

Beyond the sheer spectacle of the climb, “Free Solo” also delves into the intricacies of Honnold’s personal journey – including his relationships, sacrifices, and the profound impact of his singular passion. Through intimate glimpses into his life off the mountain, the documentary humanizes its protagonist, presenting a multifaceted portrait of a man driven by an unyielding pursuit of excellence. At the same time, it also provides a compelling exploration of the psychological underpinnings of extreme athleticism, offering viewers a rare glimpse into the mindset of an athlete confronting fear, doubt, and the relentless pursuit of perfection.

Self-improvement documentaries on mindset

I Am Greta (2020)

Genres: Documentary/History

Duration: 1h 37m

Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah blah blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah. This is all we hear from our so-called leaders. Words that sound great but so far have not led to action. Our hopes and ambitions drown in their empty promises.

I Am Greta” (2020) tells the life and activism of Greta Thunberg, the young climate advocate whose impassioned campaign has reverberated globally. Through a lens of personal insight, the film traces Thunberg’s evolution from a solitary protester to an emblematic figurehead of the climate movement, driven by her unwavering commitment and fervent determination to effect change. As audiences accompany Thunberg on her journey, from grassroots activism to international advocacy, they are not only inspired by her relentless pursuit of environmental justice – but also prompted to reflect on their own capacity for meaningful action and contribution.

One of the documentary’s most compelling aspects lies in its ability to capture the emotional resonance of Thunberg’s narrative, portraying both the triumphs and tribulations of her activism. Through moments of vulnerability and resilience, it underscores the human dimension of Thunberg’s advocacy, evoking empathy and solidarity among viewers.

“I Am Greta” acquires cultural relevance by addressing pressing environmental concerns and aligning with global conversations surrounding climate change and sustainability. By contextualizing Thunberg’s story within the broader socio-political landscape, it fosters a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of environmental issues and encourages viewers to contemplate their individual roles in effecting positive change.

Final Thoughts

From exploring the science of happiness to uncovering the secrets of peak performance, the self-improvement documentaries listed above offer a wealth of knowledge and inspiration to fuel your life journey. So, light the fire within, hit play, and get ready to unlock your potential. Let these films be your guide as you embark on the path to a more fulfilling and empowered you!

Other resources you might be interested in:

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