Care to catch a production of King Lear tonight? It’s about a vain, arrogant old man who loses everything of value to him. In the last scene, he cradles the body of the devoted daughter he foolishly disowned. You’ll love it!
OK, fine — you’d rather stay home and pop in a DVD of, say, Titanic. Either way, you’ll be watching a tragedy, a genre that has captivated audiences since the era of the ancient Greeks. In inflation-adjusted dollars, three of the top 10 movies of all time — Gone With the Wind, Doctor Zhivago, and Titanic — are tragedies. Why do we willingly subject ourselves, again and again, to these sad stories?
Researchers led by Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick of Ohio State University have tentatively proposed some answers. In the journal Communication Research, they present evidence that watching tragedy inspires self-reflection, which allows us to re-focus on the people in our lives we might otherwise take for granted. The melancholy emotions these tales arouse ultimately provoke pleasant feelings of gratitude.
“Psychological research suggests that close relationships make people happy and fulfilled,” they write. “Tragedies appear to be an excellent means to reinforcing pro-social values that make these relationships steady and meaningful, as they celebrate enduring love, friendship and compassion even in ultimate agony and suffering.”
The researchers conducted an experiment featuring 361 undergraduates. They don't break out the results by gender, but the participants were pretty evenly matched: 211 females and 150 males.
The students watched an abridged version of the 2007 British film Atonement, starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy. The noted that the film “depicts how a teenaged girl, Briony, accuses her sister’s lover of a rape that he did not commit, which permanently changes the lives of all involved.”
And not, needless to say, for the better.
Immediately before and after the screening, participants filled out detailed questionnaires measuring how they felt about their lives in general, and how happy or sad they were feeling at the moment. The latter set of questions was also asked during three pauses embedded into the film.
After the screening, they also filled out an additional set of questions measuring how much they liked the film, whether they would recommend it, and whether it “made me reflect on my own life and values.” Finally, they were asked “to write about how the movie had led them to reflect on themselves, their goals, their relationships, and life in general.”
Analyzing their responses, the researchers found that “the sadness from observing the dramatic fate of unfulfilled love (a key theme of the film) fosters thoughts about one’s one close relationships.” These ruminations, along with “the plausibly self-enhancing comparison” viewers made as they contrasted their lives with the miserable fates suffered by the film’s characters, led to feelings of happiness.
Depending on your interpretation, this is a somewhat different framework than Aristotle’s famous notion of catharsis. This research suggests tragedy’s impact comes not so much from the purging of emotions, but rather from the art form's ability to unlock feelings that might otherwise go unacknowledged. (On the other hand, if you equate "purging" with bringing repressed emotions into consciousness, the theories are quite compatible.)
“Why does it take watching a tragedy to feel gratitude for the people and relationships that make our lives worthwhile?” the researchers ask. The most likely answer, they suggest, lies in a basic psychological principle: Negative emotions inspire us to think more seriously about our lives.
The sadness induced by a movie or play “may signal the individual that his or her current situation is problematic and requires detailed attention,” they write. “It may thus induce more elaborate thoughts,” including an attitude of “counting one’s blessings with regard to close relationships.”
In other words, contentment breeds complacency. Tragedy wakes us up, reminds us that horrible things can and do happen, and inspires us to appreciate what we have. What’s not to love about that?