Why do sad movies make people happy?

Joshua Fuller ponders a paradox.

If you have ever been in a sad mood – perhaps the weather is gloomy, a friend disappointed you, or you did poorly on a test in school – it is common to want to watch a sad movie. In fact, during the fall and winter months melancholy is a common emotion and results in watching more movies that are sad in nature (at least in my case). It would seem intuitive that watching a sad movie would make an individual sadder, and it does. But, what is more interesting is that people feel more involved in the movie and thus gain more joy from watching it (Ahn et al., 2012). It’s possible this comes from the ability to identify with the movie and its characters more readily when experiencing a strong emotion congruent with what is being observed in the actors.  Maybe it’s true that ‘tragedy loves company’.

Last July comedian Tig Notaro was diagnosed with cancer, it was stage 2 which means it was quite serious and was possibly spreading throughout her body. As uncommon as this is, what she did next was profoundly uncommon and perhaps has never happened before. She went on stage and talked about her diagnosis. She greeted the audience not with a joke but with, ‘Hi, I have cancer. How are you?’ to much applause and laughter. Her naked honesty and bold truthfulness about her life and thoughts and feelings made for a legendary performance that was acclaimed by Mexican American comedian Louis C.K. and aired on This American Life. As she was telling story after story about how so many horrible things had happened in the span of four months, the audience became more and more involved in the event, and they loved it.

In the study mentioned earlier by Ahn et al. (2012) participants watched a sad movie and then answered questions about their mood, how realistic they thought the movie was, how involved they felt in the movie, and how much they enjoyed the movie.  Results indicate that people enjoy sad movies through two mediators: realism, and involvement. According to the authors, ‘sadness enhances perceived reality and increases a sense of involvement, leading viewers to enjoy the sad film’.

As the leaves change colour and cooler air sweeps over the mountains here in South Korea, sad movies will draw in their audiences causing them to feel sadder, believe the movies are realistic, feel involved in the movie, and ultimately enjoy the collective experience.

This paradox between tragedy and enjoyment has long baffled scientists. Current research and future studies will continue to shed light on this mysterious phenomenon and aid in our understanding of human emotion and behaviour.

- Joshua Fuller is Assistant Professor in Industrial-Organizational Psychology at the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, California Baptist University

Ahn, D., Jin, S-A. A. & Ritterfeld, U. (2012). 'Sad movies don’t always make me cry': The cognitive and affective processes underpinning enjoyment of tragedy. Journal of Media Psychology: Theories, Methods, and Applications, 24(1), 9–18. doi:10.1027/1864-1105/a000058

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