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A Tragedy Movie Makes People Happier

Update Date: Mar 29, 2012 12:59 AM EDT

Tragedies tend to make people happier according to a new study.

Researchers at Ohio State University found that watching a tragedy movie made people to think about their own close relationships, which in turn boosted their life happiness.  

"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 researcher of the study and associate professor of communication at Ohio State University.

The key is the extent to which viewers thought about their own relationships as a result of watching the movie. The more they thought about their loved ones, the greater the increase in their happiness. Viewers who had self-centered thoughts concerning the movie - such as "My life isn't as bad as the characters in this movie" - did not see an increase in their happiness.

According to Knobloch-Westerwick, this study is one of the first to take a scientific approach to explaining why people like 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.

The study involved 361 college students who viewed an abridged version of  "Atonement," the 2007 movie based on the British romance novel by Ian McEwan. The movie involves two war-torn lovers who fall victim to casualities of conflict.

Before and after viewing the movie, the respondents were asked several questions which measured how happy they were with their life.

They were also asked before, after and three times during the movie to rate how much they were feeling various emotions, including sadness.

After the movie, participants rated how much they enjoyed the movie and wrote about how the movie had led them to reflect on themselves, their goals, their relationships and life in general. 

People who experienced a greater increase in sadness while watching the movie were more likely to write about real people with whom they had close relationships, the author said.

This in turn, increased participants' life happiness after viewing, which was then 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," said she.

The researchers also tested the theory that people may feel more happiness after viewing a tragedy movie because they compare themselves to the characters portrayed and feel good that their own lives are not as bad.  But that wasn't the case.

People whose thoughts after the movie were about themselves - rather than about their close relationships - did not experience an increase in life happiness.

"Tragedies don't boost life happiness by making viewers think more about themselves. They appeal to people because they help them to appreciate their own relationships more," she said.

But why would people have to get sad by watching a tragedy to feel grateful about relationships in their own lives? The team connects their research with previous psychological studies that suggest negative moods cause people to be more thoughtful. Happier attitudes usually align with stability, while melancholy moods makes people more critical of their lives, Knobloch-Westerwick said. 

"So seeing a tragic movie about star-crossed lovers may make you sad, but that will cause you to think more about your own close relationships and appreciate them more."

Research has also shown that relationships are generally the major source of happiness in our lives, so it is no surprise that thinking about your loved ones would make you happier, she said.

"Tragedies bring to mind close relationships, which makes us happy."

Knobloch-Westerwick conducted the study with Yuan Gong, a graduate student, and Holly Hagner and Laura Kerkeybian, both undergraduates, all at Ohio State. The results appear online in the journal Communication Research and will appear in an upcoming print edition.

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