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Sad movies build happiness

Have you ever asked yourself why it is that you watch a movie like Titanic? OK, there were some reasonable special effects. Alright, there is the Kate Winslet factor for the gents and the Leo (or even Billy Zane) element for the ladies. What is it though about a story of such sadness and loss that is appealing? Why are movies like Casablanca and Love Story so enduring when they contain so much emotional pain and unfulfilled love? The answer lies in the results of a new study from Ohio State University.

These researchers had people watch an abridged version of the 2007 movie Atonement which features James McAvoy and Keira Knightley, two lovers who are separated and die as casualties of the Second World War.

Before and after watching the movie the subjects were asked questions to establish how happy they were with their life. They were also asked before, after, and three times during the movie how much they were feeling various emotions including sadness.

After the film the subjects rated how much they enjoyed the movie and wrote about how the movie had led them to reflect on themselves, their goals, and their relationships.

People who experienced more sadness while watching the movie were more likely in this post-movie writing to write about real people with whom they had close relationships. This led to these people feeling happier as a result of watching the movie.

Interestingly, people who had thoughts like, “At least my life is not that bad (as those of the characters in the film)” had no increase in happiness.

So watching a tragic movie makes you think about your own close relationships, and focus on the positives in your life, and that in turn can make you happy. Playwrites have known this, literally for millennia, which is why tragedy has such a strong place in the theatre. It’s nice when the scientists catch up.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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