April 4, 2012
People Seek Tragic Movies To Bring Attention To Positive Aspects of Their Own Lives
We have all likely sought a tragic movie at one time or another. There's nothing like a good tearjerker to bring out the best in us. People enjoy watching tragic movies like "Titanic" because they deliver what may seem to be an unlikely benefit: tragedies actually make people happier in the short-term.
Altruism, the concern for the welfare of others, is a complex human characteristic, according to researchers at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. They note that altruism is seen in animals, in their sacrifice for the sake of their young. But for humans, the sense of caring for others goes beyond this instinctual drive to see their offspring survive.
Life experiences and social relationships also contribute to a "uniquely human"' form of altruism. Even small children show this in actions such as trying to comfort their mothers when they are upset. It ultimately makes the child happy and healthy to instinctively comfort.
The genre of tragedy has its roots in the Greek festivals. The traditional tragedy is derived from the Greek and the Renaissance.
In the last century, tragic stories have often been held back and that lack may be due to a paucity of heroes among us, or the heroic attack on life cannot feed on an attitude of reserve and circumspection. For one reason or another, we are often held to be below tragedy-or tragedy above us. The inevitable conclusion is, of course, that the tragic mode is archaic, fit only for the very highly placed, the kings or the kingly, and where this admission is not made in so many words it is most often implied.
Nevertheless, tragedy has been an asset to humanity, not a deficit. It has made us into what we are as a species. Studies are finally validating the fact that it brings out the best in us.
Researchers found that watching a tragedy movie caused people to think about their own close relationships, which in turn boosted their life happiness. The result was that what seems like a negative experience -- watching a sad story -- made people happier by bringing attention to some positive aspects in their own lives.
"Tragic stories often focus on themes of eternal love, and this leads viewers to think about their loved ones and count their blessings," said Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, lead author of the study and associate professor of communication at Ohio State University.
The key is the extent to which viewers thought about their own relationships as a result of watching the movie. The more they thought about their loved ones, the greater the increase in their happiness. Viewers who had self-centered thoughts concerning the movie -- such as "My life isn't as bad as the characters in this movie" -- did not see an increase in their happiness.
Knobloch-Westerwick said this study is one of the first to take a scientific approach to explaining why people enjoy fictional tragedies that make them sad.
"Philosophers have considered this question over the millennia, but there hasn't been much scientific attention to the question," she said.
Knobloch-Westerwick conducted the study with Yuan Gong, a graduate student, and Holly Hagner and Laura Kerkeybian, both undergraduates, all at Ohio State. The results appear online in the journal Communication Research and will appear in an upcoming print edition.
The study involved 361 college students who viewed an abridged version of the 2007 movie "Atonement," which involves two lovers who are separated and die as war casualties.
Before and after viewing the movie, the respondents were asked several questions which measured how happy they were with their life.
They were also asked before, after and three times during the movie to rate how much they were feeling various emotions, including sadness.
After the movie, participants rated how much they enjoyed the movie and wrote about how the movie had led them to reflect on themselves, their goals, their relationships and life in general.
What people wrote about as a result of seeing the movie was a key in understanding why people enjoy viewing fictional tragedies, Knobloch-Westerwick said.
People who experienced a greater increase in sadness while watching the movie were more likely to write about real people with whom they had close relationships, she said.
This in turn, increased participants' life happiness after viewing, which was then related to more enjoyment of the movie.
"People seem to use tragedies as a way to reflect on the important relationships in their own life, to count their blessings," she said.
"That can help explain why tragedies are so popular with audiences, despite the sadness they induce."
The researchers also tested the theory that people may feel more happiness after viewing a tragedy movie because they compare themselves to the characters portrayed and feel good that their own lives are not as bad. But that wasn't the case.
People whose thoughts after the movie were about themselves -- rather than about their close relationships -- did not experience an increase in life happiness.
"Tragedies don't boost life happiness by making viewers think more about themselves. They appeal to people because they help them to appreciate their own relationships more," she said.
But why would people have to get sad by watching a tragedy to feel grateful about relationships in their own lives?
Knobloch-Westerwick said this fits with research in psychology that suggests negative moods make people more thoughtful.
"Positive emotions are generally a signal that everything is fine, you don't have to worry, you don't have to think about issues in your life," she said.
"But negative emotions, like sadness, make you think more critically about your situation. So seeing a tragic movie about star-crossed lovers may make you sad, but that will cause you to think more about your own close relationships and appreciate them more."
Research has also shown that relationships are generally the major source of happiness in our lives, so it is no surprise that thinking about your loved ones would make you happier, she said.
"Tragedies bring to mind close relationships, which makes us happy."
April McCarthy is a community journalist playing an active role reporting and analyzing world events to advance our health and eco-friendly initiatives.