Why 'Titanic' and Other Tragic Movies Make Us Happy

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Ohio State researchers uncover why some moviegoers enjoy watching fictional characters die with a broken heart. (Hint: It's not schadenfreude.)

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PROBLEM: Titanic is a tragedy. In about three hours, moviegoers watch as more than 1,500 people die, several characters commit suicide, and the female protagonist loses "the one." So why do so many people enjoy these sad films?

METHODOLOGY: Ohio State researchers led by communication professor Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick recruited 361 college students for a screening of an abridged version of the 2007 movie Atonement, which involves two lovers who are separated and then killed at war. Before and after the film, they asked the respondents several questions to measure how happy they were with their lives. They also asked them before, after, and three times during the movie to rate how much they were feeling various emotions, including sadness. Finally, after the film, the subjects shared how much they enjoyed the movie and wrote about how it had led them to reflect on themselves, their goals, their relationships, and life in general.

RESULTS: What people wrote about after the viewing was key in understanding why people enjoy fictional tragedies. The more viewers thought about their own relationships and loved ones as a result of watching the movie, the greater the increase in their happiness. This effect was absent among those who had self-centered thoughts concerning the movie, such as "My life isn't as bad as the characters in this movie."

CONCLUSION: Watching tragic movies makes some people happier because they bring attention to positive aspects in their own lives. "Tragic stories often focus on themes of eternal love," says Knobloch-Westerwick in a statement, "and this leads viewers to think about their loved ones and count their blessings."

SOURCE: The full study, "Tragedy Viewers Count Their Blessings: Feeling Low on Fiction Leads to Feeling High on Life," is published in the journal Communication Research.

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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