by Kelly O’Brien
Since the time of Shakespeare, the human race has been inexplicably drawn to watching the tragedy of others. Having evolved over the ages, we are now a race almost addicted to tearjerker films, movies that make us cry inconsolably. Until recently, there hasn’t been much of an explanation to this phenomenon. Now, we can conclude that we are addicted to these films because they make us happy. Unfortunately, like so many other answers in life, this only leads to more questions.
In a recent study from Ohio State University, researchers found that watching a tearjerker or two caused people to think about their own close relationships which, consequently, resulted in an increase in their happiness levels.
Lead author Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick stated that “Tragic stories often focus on themes of eternal love, and this leads viewers to think about their loved ones and count their blessings.”
She went on to say that this study is one of the first to take a scientific approach towards explaining the reason behind people finding fictional tragedies so enjoyable.
The study involved 361 college students who viewed 2007’s Atonement starring Keira Knightly and James McEvoy. The story centres around two lost lovers separated by war.
Before, after and during the movie, the viewers were asked several questions aimed at measuring how happy they were. After consolidating and analysing the results, the researchers at Ohio State University concluded that viewing a sad 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.
Knobloch-Westerwick explained that this need to use a tragedy to feel grateful for the meaningful relationships in our lives fits in with psychological research suggesting that a negative mood causes people to be more thoughtful. She said that “positive emotions” are generally a signal that everything is fine whereas “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.
While this study does seem to be the first well thought out foray into answering a long-standing question, I sincerely hope it’s not the last because I’m not entirely sold on the conclusions.
First of all, the study was of a very small number of people and second of all, they only asked the participants to watch one film. These are minor pitfalls, however, in relation to the biggest oversight – not once does their research mention the work of Professor David Hurron from the Centre of Cognitive Science. Dr. Hurrons work, while exploring the allure of sad music rather than sad movies, found that, when feeling sad, the human body produces a hormone called prolactin, the same hormone linked to breastfeeding in women.
Dr Hurron found that listening to sad music actually thrusts you into a “sham” state of sadness so that your body produces prolactin, nature’s version of a warm hug. Hurron believes that prolactin has a consoling effect that is meant to be protective.
Whether emotional or hormonal, one thing is for sure: the human race loves sad movies. No matter the cause, that fact isn’t gonna change any time soon.
So get out your Kleenex and that battered DVD of The Notebook and let’s all cry ourselves into happiness.