Why a sad movie can make you feel happier (looking at you, Ghost!)

A few weeks back, I was flipping through my movie channel listings when I scrolled past a sure-fire tearjerker: Ghost. As cheesy as it was, I still choked up at “Ditto.” I still sobbed when Sam said his final goodbye to Molly. I still sniffled when Molly try to move on after Sam’s death. And I’m not even going to start on the pottery scene, thank you very much.

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A few weeks back, I was flipping through my movie channel listings when I scrolled past a sure-fire tearjerker: Ghost. As cheesy as it was, I still choked up at “Ditto.” I still sobbed when Sam said his final goodbye to Molly. I still sniffled when Molly try to move on after Sam’s death. And I’m not even going to start on the pottery scene, thank you very much.  

What is it about that movie that gets to me? The theme of a relationship cut short resonates, leaving me hugging my husband a little tighter to his amused bewilderment. And as I happily hold the man in my life, grateful that he’s here, I understand what Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, an associate professor at the Ohio State University School of Communication, discovered in her recent study: watching sad movies can lead to happiness. But the reason they make you happy is not what you might think.

Knobloch-Westerwick showed 361 participants Atonement, a sniffly flick involving war and two lovers pulled apart. She questioned them afterward, and found that the viewers thought about their own relationships and reflected on their own lives after the movie, which left them feeling happier.

Isn’t that counterintuitive? Shouldn’t sad movies leave you feeling blue? No, says Knobloch-Westerwick. “We thought when watching movies and looking at other people who go through war or loved ones die or other deplorable circumstances, you think to yourself — ‘Oh, I have it so good and my life isn’t all that bad.’ We thought this kind of conscientious contemplation would make people happy.” But that wasn’t the case. The happiness actually derived from how the movie made participants think about the relationships in their own lives. “When you are reminded of the people that are dear to you, this caused a happiness increase or fostered a change in how they felt about your life that hasn’t been really examined very much.

What about sad TV shows (Six Feet Under finale, I’m looking at you) or even a sad newspaper story? “I think we could apply these results to [this type of entertainment.] It wouldn’t have the same amount of time to develop but it could still have the same pattern.” (Judging by the sobfest that the book Sarah’s Key triggered for me, I’d say sad books make the cut as well…)

So what can we take away from this? “Sadness can be a good thing,” says Knobloch-Westerwick. “It’s good to embrace it and it makes you think about things precious to you. Negative emotions make us think more.”

(If you want to test this theory, click here or here to find a list of teary movies to get you started.)

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