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The Motivational Power of Media

New research finds short inspirational videos can stimulate viewers to pursue their own goals.
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Are you feeling hopeless? Do you lack the needed inspiration to make something of your life?

If so, you might want to consider changing your diet. Your television-watching diet, that is.

All that binge-viewing of dour dramas like Breaking Bad may not be giving you the emotional nutrition you need.

That’s one takeaway from a newly published study. It finds stories chronicling the struggles of determined underdogs instill viewers with an elevated sense of hope, and increase their motivation to pursue personal ambitions. What’s more, these feelings don’t disappear as soon as the screen goes dark.

“These findings suggest that underdog narratives can generate an emotional fuel that may inspire viewers to invest greater effort in achieving their own important goals,” behavioral researcher Abby Prestin writes in the journal Media Psychology. She did the research while completing her doctorate in communication from the University of California-Santa Barbara.

Her experiment was part of a larger study testing the influence of media on emotional and psychological health. It featured 248 university undergraduates (84 percent female). On each of five consecutive days, most of them watched a fresh five-minute video clip in one of three categories: “comedy,” “nature,” or “underdog.”

The comedy clips included scenes from such shows as The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men. The nature clips included videos of Alaskan wildlife and a kayak trip down a river in the Adirondack Mountains.

The underdog clips included a feature from The Oprah Winfrey Show featuring a dog, born with only two hind legs, that walks upright, and a story about a teenager with autism who becomes a hero on his high-school basketball team.

Each day, participants reported the extent to which they felt hopeful or inspired. They also answered a series of questions measuring their personal level of motivation to achieve a specific ambition of their choosing. These included, “I want to come up with a strategy to achieve my goal” and “I want to take action to make progress toward my goal.”

Those who watched the underdog videos indicated feeling more hopeful than those who watched the other videos (or no videos at all). Sixty percent of them “indicated that at least one character had motivated them to pursue their own goals, in contrast to 25 percent in the nature group and 10 percent in the comedy group,” Prestin writes.

What’s more, for those who watched the uplifting videos, “hopefulness remained elevated for up to three days after media exposure, despite the fleeting nature of emotions,” she adds. “In contrast, positive emotional responses did not appear to outlast media exposure for either the nature or the comedy (viewers).”

So instead of focusing exclusively on the negative consequences of media usage (such as the link between aggression and violent video games), it’s good to know that certain content can increase our levels of hope and motivation. When you’re feeling blah, perhaps the best remedy is a few choice words from Coach Taylor.