Why do sad movies make us feel good?


Consider the movie “Titanic.” You’ve likely seen it.

An epic movie about a real-life tragedy at sea, “Titanic” features a woman in an abusive relationship, scenes of many people dying horribly and – spoiler alert – an ending where the heroine’s lover drowns. It’s also the second-highest grossing film of all time.

Very few people deliberately set out to feel sad. So why do we love watching things that are sad, depressing and traumatic? It’s a tradition as old as storytelling. From early Greek tragedies to Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” to Hollywood melodramas, people seem to deliberately seek out entertainment that on the surface should make them feel miserable.

And yet they don’t.

Why? Researchers from the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom asked themselves the same question and found sad movies actually seem to make us feel better.

A greater pain tolerance, a greater sense of belonging

“The argument here is that actually, maybe the emotional wringing you get from tragedy triggers the endorphin system,” said Robin Dunbar, Ph.D., co-author of a recent Oxford study on the emotional effect of sad films in a Guardian article.

For the study, Dunbar and other researchers collected nearly 170 people and screened the film “Stuart: A Life Backwards,” a film from 2007 about a homeless alcoholic scarred by trauma, suicide attempts and arrests. The film ends with the title character’s suicide by train – as it did for the real-life Stuart Shorter, on whose life the film is based. “People were leaving in tears,” said Dunbar to the BBC.

Meanwhile, a control group made up of 68 people viewed BBC documentaries on museums and geology. Before and after watching their respective programs, both groups participated in two tests. One test was a questionnaire measuring the sensations of belonging they felt with their fellow audience members, and the second was a simple physical test called the Roman chair, which is used to measure endorphin levels. In the test, participants squat with their back against a wall in a sitting position for as long as they can.

The results showed the audience members for the tragic movie underwent, perhaps unsurprisingly, a strong negative change to their overall mood. However, they also had an increased pain tolerance – viewers of the sad movie were able to participate in the Roman chair exercise around 18 percent longer than they could before watching the movie. Additionally, the viewers also reported a greater sense of social bonding.

The documentary viewers, on the other hand, actually showed a small decrease in their pain tolerance. Speaking in Science magazine, University of Maryland neuroscientist Alexander Shackman , Ph.D. – who did not participate in the study – was intrigued by the study’s results. “We know that emotional films can have complex effects on the brain and that a number of other, nonopioid mechanisms can influence pain tolerance,” said Shackman in a Science article.

Other reasons sad can feel good

Sometimes, tragedy can put things in perspective. An earlier study conducted by a team from Ohio State University found tragic movies can make audiences consider their own relationships – which in turn made them happy. Study lead author Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, Ph.D., said in an OSU press release, “Tragic stories often focus on themes of eternal love, and this leads viewers to think about their loved ones and count their blessings.”

Endorphins and bonding

Endorphins are neurotransmitters, brain chemicals that help the brain and nervous system communicate. Released when the body experiences pain or stressful situations, endorphins act similarly to opioid drugs and help reduce the body’s sense of pain. Endorphins are the reason many people feel elated after intense physical activity.

Endorphins also seem to help us bond with each other. In 2015, Oxford researchers examined a link between feelings of bonding and endorphin release while studying dancing. For their study, the researchers had over 260 teenage Brazilians engage in dancing sessions that varied in intensity and synchronization. Before and after each session, the teens’ feelings of social bonding and pain thresholds were measured.

The research team found synchronized dancing was a greater encouragement of bonding than unsynchronized dancing. Additionally, it also led to a higher pain threshold. The results were similar to those found after high-intensity dancing sessions. “Both synchronization and exertion had independent effects on these measures, so moving energetically or moving in synchrony can both make you feel closer to others when you are dancing,” said study author Bronwyn Tarr, Ph.D., in an Oxford press release. “But combining high energy and synchrony had the greatest effects – which might explain why people love to flashmob!”

About the author

Brian Moore is a staff writer and graphic designer. A 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years.

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