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Why do we like watching movies that make us feel depressed?

This is a question that has long interested psychologists and philosophers, and a recent study published by Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick at Ohio State University may have an answer.

Her research is one of the first attempts to take a scientific approach to explaining why people enjoy fictional tragedies.

For the study, researchers recruited 361 college students who viewed a shortened version of the 2007 movie “Atonement,” a story about two loves who are separated and die during wartime. Participants were asked before and after the film how happy they were with their life. They were also asked several times during the film how much they were feeling various emotions.

Once the movie ended, participants were asked to write about how the movie led them to reflect on themselves, their goals, their relationships, and life in general.

The first finding was that individuals who reported greater increases in sadness while watching the film were more likely to reflect on their close relationships after the film was over. Another finding was that these participants who reflected on their relationships after viewing the film also showed greater increases in happiness and life satisfaction.

This is because tragic stories led these individuals to count their blessings when it comes to their real-world relationships.

This research is consistent with other studies on sadness and depression, which often make people more thoughtful and reflective. According to Knoblock-Westerwick:

    “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. 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 about your own close relationships and appreciate them more.”

In this particular study, they also tested the hypothesis that some individuals would experience greater happiness because they would compare themselves with the characters in the film and realize their own lives aren’t as bad. However, researchers found that individuals who reflected on themselves after the film did not report the same increases in happiness as those who reflected on their relationships.

This could be because the movie (“Atonement”) is mostly focused on lovers and relationships. And it’s likely that different tragedy movies are going to get people thinking in different ways.

I’ve written before how a “things could be worse” perspective can sometimes be a valuable way to increase gratitude and appreciation toward our life (especially aspects of our life that are outside of our control). So it’s possible that other tragic movies, like “Requiem for a Dream” which depicts individuals helplessly addicted to hard drugs to the point of ruining their lives, could cause us to be grateful for other aspects of our lives – like health or personal well-being. More research needs to be done on how different types of tragic movies may affect us in different ways.

As a whole, it’s very interesting to me how art, entertainment, and culture can influence our happiness and well-being.

Movies are one common example, but another popular one is how we use music to change our emotions – such as listening to some relaxing tunes after a hard day at work, or listening to an upbeat song to get us pumped at the gym.

Hopefully in the future psychologists will conduct more research on how movies, music, and art can have a significant effect on our psychology.


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