Put away your handkerchiefs. A new psychological study has found how – and why – tearjerkers like “Cast Away” and “Titanic” actually make people happy.
The big picture: People enjoy watching tragedies because the movies prompt them to think about their own relationships, which typically boosts their feelings of short-term happiness, according to Ohio State University researchers.
Tearjerkers also typically focus on over-arching issues – such as love – and may allow moviegoers to “count their blessings,” the study found. As a result, what seems like a negative experience – watching a sad story – in fact makes people happier by letting them examine the 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, published online in the journal Communication Research.
The study involved 361 college students who viewed the 2007 movie "Atonement." Before and after seeing the film, the students were asked questions designed to measure their happiness. They were also asked about their feelings of sadness and other emotions before, after and three times during the movie.
After the movie, the students were then asked to write about how the movie had led them to reflect on themselves, their goals, their relationships and lives. Researchers found the students who greater feelings of sadness while watching the movie were more likely to write about important people in their lives.
As a result, they reported feeling an increase in “life happiness,” 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 idea that tearjerkers make people happy because they compare themselves favorably to the characters portrayed. But that wasn't the case.
Knobloch-Westerwick said the 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.