Have you ever felt drawn to watch a heart-wrenching tragic movie, especially when the weather is rainy and gloomy? How many times do people keep rewatching the heartbreaking story of Titanic despite its tear-jerking ending?
From the star-crossed love stories of "The Fault in Our Stars" (2014) and "Atonement" (2007) to the heartbreaking musical film "Les Misérables"(2012) and even the animated film "Inside Out"(2015), there is something for everyone. These tear-jerking stories always stay in our hearts for the longest time.
Intuitively, tragic stories break our hearts more often, but still people choose to watch them, why? This enigma that has long perplexed scientists may have a simple explanation: sad movies can actually make people happier!
According to science, everything that happens in our body, including our emotions, is regulated by the brain. Every feeling and sensation is felt by a person through the release of appropriate hormones through the endorphin system in the body. A study from Oxford University deduced that watching a tragic movie increases the endorphin level, the hormone responsible for the feeling of pleasure and happiness in the body. An observation was made upon a large group of people to assess the mental and emotional changes that they went through, after watching a tragic film called Stuart: A Life Backwards.
Endorphin is an analgesic that is associated with the response to pain and stress, creating a general feeling of ‘well-being’ as opposed to the pain induced. Since endorphin levels are difficult to measure directly, their levels are assessed through changes in pain threshold.
The end result proved that watching sad stories heightened the level of pain threshold, indicating an increase in level of endorphin release! Hence, this scientifically explains the unexpectedly bizarre feelings of relief and solace after ending an emotionally tear-jerking story. What an ironic verdict!
Aside from the chemical changes in our bodies triggered by watching such stories, the whole experience of following the harrowing journey of a fictional character actually allows us to face the deepest fear of emotions that we’ve suppressed all this time. Feeling sad and depressed are things people want to avoid at all costs, as there is no benefit gained from succumbing to those feelings. It might even feel embarrassing to admit it to others. However, watching a movie and witnessing fictional characters' misfortunes and adversities in life, as well as how they cope with them, helps us to be more reflective.
We begin to see our own lives from a third point of view. Oftentimes, we are blinded by our emotions and fears of life, which hinder our capability of handling such tribulations. In the bustle of everyday life, we don’t usually get to pause to contemplate ourselves. However, having an outsider's perspective could help us face unresolved traumas and fears in life because the feelings that we bury inside are validated and seen through the shared sorrows on the screen. By observing a movie character, we can assess their behavior and learn how to embrace the emotions that we are scared of. According to previous psychological studies from Ohio State University, sadness could be associated with an increase in thoughtfulness. Through the emotions elicited by sad stories, people begin to introspect and analyze their relationships with their loved ones and appreciate them more.
Perhaps, it is true that tragedy needs company! Only when we look up at others’ sufferings do we realize the bad things in our lives are just a phase and will not long last.
So, the next time we want to watch a sad movie, we'll know it's not simply because we want to be sad, but actually it's quite the opposite! It is one way of doing catharsis, or emotional detox, to touch the deepest emotions and come to terms with them. Having an emotional purging session would let free the burdens and despair we carry.
Life sometimes needs a dose of external sadness. Because it is only through sadness that we can taste happiness.
Dunbar R. I. M., Teasdale Ben, Thompson Jackie, Budelmann Felix, Duncan Sophie, van Emde Boas Evert and Maguire Laurie 2016Emotional arousal when watching drama increases pain threshold and social bonding R. Soc. open sci.3160288160288
S. Knobloch-Westerwick, Y. Gong, H. Hagner, L. Kerbeykian. Tragedy Viewers Count Their Blessings: Feeling low on Fiction Leads to Feeling High on Life. Communication Research, 2012; DOI: 10.1177/0093650212437758
ScienceDaily. (2012). Smiling through the tears: Study shows how tearjerkers make people happier. [online] Available at: