Why Do We Like Sad Stories?

Asian chinese women crying watching sad sentimental drama movie in cinema movie theater wiping teardrop with tissue paper.

Edwin Tan / Getty Images

Throughout history, humans have been drawn to fictional sad stories, from Shakespeare's tragedies like Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet to challenging films like Schindler's List and Titanic. However, because we think of stories as a form of entertainment, our interest in sad stories has been called paradoxical.

After all, if we consume stories for entertainment, why would we choose to spend time with narratives that make us feel sad, an emotion that people typically try to avoid?

Psychologists have started to investigate this question in the last few years and have come up with several answers through their research.

Some of the things they've discovered include that consuming sad stories enables us to experience sadness without anxiety, makes us feel grateful for our close relationships, and causes us to think about what's valuable and meaningful to us. This article covers some of the reasons why people consume sad stories.

It Connects People to Real Life Emotions

When we consume a fictional story, even though we know it isn't real, we automatically experience emotions in response to it. That's because if we connect with a story—and especially if we find ourselves narratively transported, or absorbed, into a story—its emotional content resonates with us in a way that makes us feel it's truthful.

Sad Stories Can Remind Us of Real Life

So when we read, watch, or listen to a sad story, we spontaneously feel sad, get teary-eyed, or cry because the emotions the story conveys simulate those we've experienced in real life.

Interestingly, one study found that this feeling of realism helps explain our enjoyment of sad films. The researchers found that after watching the tragic 1995 movie Angel Baby, participants who responded to the movie with greater sadness perceived the film to be more realistic and became more involved in the movie.

The more involved participants became in the film, the more they enjoyed it. So ultimately, those who were the saddest after watching the film were also the ones who enjoyed it the most.

You Can Experience Sadness Without Anxiety

Yet, our perceptions of a story's realism are far from the only reason we like sad stories. Another study exploring responses to sad stories discovered that participants experienced just as much sadness when they recalled a tragic personal event as they did when they watched tragic TV and movies.

However, there was one noteworthy difference between recalling a personal tragedy and watching a fictional tragedy: participants experienced significantly more anxiety when they recalled personal tragedy than they did when they watched tragic shows and movies.

The researcher suggested that this may be key to our ability to enjoy sad fictional stories. If a sad event happens in real life, it is often accompanied by anxiety because we know that we'll continue to have to deal with the impact of that event.

On the other hand, we aren't anxious about consuming a sad story because the emotions we experience through it won't continue to have an impact on us after we're done watching, reading, or listening.

Consuming Sad Stories May Make You Feel More Grateful

Another reason we enjoy sad stories are that they make us feel grateful, but perhaps not in the way we might expect.

In an additional study, participants who experienced greater sadness while watching the tragic 2007 movie Atonement reported both enjoying the film more and experiencing greater happiness with their lives, but only if they thought about their close relationships as they were watching the film.

The researchers also investigated whether participants who compared their lives to those of the tragic characters in the movie experienced a similar happiness boost, but found such self-centered thoughts didn't have an impact on viewers' moods.

Instead, those who experienced the greatest increase in sadness while watching the film were also those who were most likely to consider their close relationships in response to it. This indicates that we enjoy sad stories because they help us think about and feel more grateful for the bonds we share with the people we love and care for.

You Can Consider What Makes Life Meaningful

Yet, further research has shown that sad stories may provoke thoughts that go beyond our relationships and extend to more existential considerations.

In a study in which participants were shown multiple film clips of characters learning about the death of a close relation, the researchers found sadness and enjoyment were correlated, as long as viewers were also moved by the stories they watched.

Scholars Mary Beth Oliver and Anne Bartsch have labeled the feeling of being moved by a sad, poignant, or bittersweet story as "appreciation" and suggest that people seek out stories that will elicit this feeling when they are hoping to uncover meaning or deeper truths.

Oliver and Bartsch define appreciation as “an experiential state that is characterized by the perception of deeper meaning, the feeling of being moved, and the motivation to elaborate on thoughts and feelings inspired by the experience.”

Based on this definition, it's clear that the experience of appreciation is positive, but is not purely pleasurable. Instead, the positive feelings it provokes are the result of consumers finding meaning in stories and continuing to ponder that meaning after they've finished consuming them.

Potential for Personal Growth

Studies indicate that this facilitates consumers' consideration of big questions, such as who we are, what we value, and what makes life worthwhile, not only in general but for themselves. Consequently, appreciation can lead to personal growth.

This implies that the reason people like sad stories is they enable consumers to engage with tender and meaningful emotions and provoke reflective thoughts.

Moreover, the expectation that consuming sad stories will provoke these meaningful and moving responses motivates people to continue to seek out and watch, read, and listen to sad stories.

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