We all know the value of an evening spent in, drinking wine and watching a tragic movie that makes our tears flow freely. As sad as those movies are, we seem to crave them and whatever magic they perform on our souls, and now science has figured out why that might be. It turns out watching tragic stories unfold, while sad in the moment, actually causes us to reflect on our important relationships and boosts our happiness in the short run.
The study, which was led by Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, associate professor of communication at Ohio State University, involved 361 college students. They were all shown an "abridged version" of the movie Atonement, which from what I remember is quite tragic indeed, but which also seems like it would be very hard to abridge. Anyway, spoiler alert: it involves two lovers who are pulled apart and end up both dying during World War II. The students were asked to fill out questionnaires before, during, and after the movie, which gave researchers insight into how happy they were with their lives and what kinds of emotions the movie brought up for them. Afterwards, the students had to write about what the movie caused them to reflect on, and also about "their goals, their relationships and life in general." Sounds like a very relaxing movie watching experience... But their answers gave researchers an understanding of what enjoyment the participants got out of watching such a sad movie.
It turns out that seeing someone else's tragedy unfold on-screen made people consider their own close relationships, which led them to feel happier about their lives. So even though watching the sad movie was a somewhat negative experience, it ended up making them happy because it led them to focus on what was good in their lives. Kind of a "Don't get sad, get glad" reaction.
Knobloch-Westerwick says this same experience holds true for all sorts of dramas, not just those starring Kiera Knightley playing a forlorn Brit, because, "Tragic stories often focus on themes of eternal love, and this leads viewers to think about their loved ones and count their blessings." Of course, that might also mean that if you're a bit short on loved ones, tragic movies could drive you over the edge into hopeless depression; so maybe better to stick with watching rom-coms if you're feeling unloved and disconnected from the world.
Interestingly, while it might seem like people would also feel better about their lives after watching sad movies because they spent the whole time thinking, "Wow, at least my life doesn't suck as badly as this poor loser's does," in fact, the study found that viewers who had self-centered thoughts such as these didn't see a boost in their happiness. What mattered was the amount viewers contemplated their own relationships after watching the movie. The more they thought about the people they loved, the greater the increase in their level of happiness. Aww, warm fuzzies all around. This seemed to be brought on by an increase in sadness while actually watching the movie. People who had the largest increases in sadness were more likely to write about people with whom they were close, which then increased their happiness, which they then associated with enjoyment of the film. So, now we know why we drag ourselves to the theater to cry through the latest tearjerking iteration of I Love You But We Can Never Be Together Because of Circumstances Beyond Our Control: So we can feel happy afterwards.
How Tearjerkers Make People Happier [Science Daily]
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