Denise Foley

Why Sad Movies Make You Happy


In 1978, I went to see the movie The Deer Hunter with a group of friends. Around the midpoint of the film, which explored the devastating effects of the Vietnam War on a group of friends from a small industrial town in western Pennsylvania, I started to cry. By the end of the film, I was sobbing. And to my friends' embarrassment, I continued to sob even as we got into our car in the crowded parking garage. I was a mess.

Fast-forward to a year later.

I am in my little apartment, doing my Saturday morning cleaning, with the TV humming in the next room. I suddenly become aware of music playing, and although I don't recognize the tune, I find my eyes filling with tears. I go to the living room to see what it is. It's a promo. For The Deer Hunter.

Fast-forward to today. In a study published in the journal Communication Research, Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, a communications professor at Ohio State University, and colleagues found that people love sad movies because of their unlikely benefit: They can make you happy.

Knobloch-Westerwick's study involved 361 college students who watched an abridged version of the 2007 film Atonement, a film about two separated lovers who become the casualties of war. (It was drawn from the book by Ian McEwan, one of my favorite authors, though I found its overarching theme -- that one can make a mistake that reverberates over a lifetime -- far sadder than the story of doomed love.)

Before, during and after watching the film, the viewers were asked about their lives and feelings. The researcher wanted to determine how happy they were before plunging them into the big-screen chaos and tragedy, then to track their fluctuating emotions as the story unfolded and ended.

At the film's conclusion, Knobloch-Westerwick and her colleagues asked the students how much they enjoyed the movie and to write about how it led them to reflect on themselves, their lives, their relationships, and life in general.

And here's where the unexpected happened. The viewers who felt saddest while watching the movie were more likely to write about people with whom they had close relationships. That in turn increased their happiness afterward. Sad movies may make you cry, as Sue Thompson sang in her 1961 bobby-soxer hit, but they also seem to remind you that your life isn't so bad.

"People seem to use tragedies as a way to reflect on the important relationships in their own life -- to count their blessings," said Knobloch-Westerwick in an interview. "That can help explain why tragedies are so popular with audiences, despite the sadness they induce."

There might even be a chemical reason for the paradox. Across the OSU campus from Knobloch-Westerwick is David Huron, professor of arts and humanities at the School of Music and the Center for Cognitive Science. In his studies exploring the emotional effects of sad music, he found that when people are feeling sad, their bodies produce a hormone called prolactin. Yes, the same hormone linked to breastfeeding in women. He knows because he took people's blood while they were listening to sad and happy music and analyzed it. (Read a synopsis of the study here.)

Listening to sad music actually thrusts you into a "sham" state of sadness so that your body produces prolactin, nature's version of a warm hug. Huron believes that prolactin has a consoling effect that is meant to be protective.

So there you have it. In our "down the rabbit hole" world, sad is happy. I still can't watch The Deer Hunter or Old Yeller, though. I've never seen Bambi and don't plan to relive the Titanic sinking in 3D. But I do listen to sad music when I'm sad and I have to admit, it does make me feel better. In fact, I'm even a bit concerned that Adele has announced she's no longer writing sad songs. What will I do now when I have the blues?


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