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Sad movies tend to make people feel happy, despite plots

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Do Spring Quarter classes have you feeling blue? The solution could be as simple as watching a sad movie. As a new communication study reveals, there’s reason to love a good tearjerker.

Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, an associate professor in the School of Communication at Ohio State and lead author of the research study, concluded that watching a tragic movie can make people happier with their lives in the short term.

“I’ve been wanting to study tragedy for a while,” Knobloch-Westerwick said. “I wanted to study why we are drawn to sad entertainment even though we want to be happy and be distracted … People seek it out … over and over again. They know they’re going to be sad. They know in ‘Titanic’ that the ship is going to sink, but they watch it anyway.”

In her study, Knobloch-Westerwick enlisted the help of 361 OSU students – 211 female and 150 male – to watch a 30-minute, abridged version of the 2007 award-winning movie, “Atonement.”

“I did a pilot test in my classes and asked them what was the saddest movie they’ve ever seen,” Knobloch-Westerwick said. “‘Atonement’ was one listed that not many people had seen.”

She said the movie was a good choice because it appeals to both genders.

“There’s a female and male protagonist,” Knobloch-Westerwick said. “It has romance that appeals more to women and war scenes that appealed to men.”

Students indicated their level of happiness with life before and after watching the film. Three times during the film students answered questions about their emotional state. After the movie, participants indicated their movie enjoyment and responded to an open-ended question asking them to reflect on themselves, their life goals and their relationships with others.

Results of the study revealed what Knobloch-Westerwick calls the tragedy paradox – people like watching sad movies because sad movies make people happier.

“Tragedy-induced sadness instigates self-focused thoughts about one’s own life situation and socio-focused thoughts about one’s relationships with others, which in turn increase life happiness and subsequently tragedy enjoyment,” she concluded in the study.

Participants focused on themselves when they compared their own lives to the fates of the characters in tragic movies, Knobloch-Westerwick said.

Elise Kremer, a fourth-year in human nutrition, did not participate in the study but said comparing her own life to that of movie characters can make her more grateful.

“No matter how bad I think my life is, at least I’m not sinking in the ocean,” Kremer said, in reference to the plot of the movie ‘Titanic.’

Participants also focused on close relationships, a common theme in tragedies. Focusing on everlasting romance and enduring friendships helped participants feel attached to characters and appreciate close relationships in their own lives, Knobloch-Westerwick said.

Chris Cahill, a first-year in exploration, said he feels attached to characters in sad movies by sympathizing with their struggles.

“A movie is nothing unless it emotionally moves you, which is what sad movies do well,” Cahill said. “By the end, you feel like you understand what that person is going through, you develop a sense of who they are as a character … You feel sympathy for them, and any time you feel sorry for something, it makes you feel better … that you are able to experience someone else’s experience.”

Knobloch-Westerwick said participants who considered others, and their own relationships with others, were more likely to report feeling happier after a sad movie.

“Watching romantic comedies doesn’t do it for us,” Knobloch-Westerwick said. “We appreciate tragedies because they help us appreciate relationships, and relationships make you happy.”

Some students are not convinced sad movies make people happier.

“I don’t watch sad movies,” said Kyle Kreutz, a second-year in mechanical engineering. “I’m more into comedies. I like feel-good movies.”

Chelsea Wells, a second-year in material science and engineering, agreed.

“I don’t like them,” she said. “I only watch sad movies if I don’t know they’re going to be sad.”


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