Why do we seek out sadness?

When I transferred this blog to the new website, I found one unfinished post. In it, I pondered why humans voluntarily seek out books, movies and TV shows that are about sad, even tragic, situations. I think I didn’t finish it because I really don’t know the answer. I would love to see any studies that help to explain this. But for now, let me just speculate.

The question came up a few years ago, when I was watching the TV show “Parenthood” with my husband. In this particular episode, one of the main characters finds out she has breast cancer. Mike looked over at me, with tears flowing down my face, and asked why I wanted to watch this. In this case, the answer, I believe, is human connection. These characters already felt like real human beings to me, with whom I had made a connection, and so I cared about them.

We recently watched the movie, “Life Itself”, about film critic Roger Ebert. This movie especially focused on his end days, after cancer of the jaw had caused him to lose his ability to speak or eat. It was shocking to see his face with the lower jaw missing. And yet, he remained largely in good humor. I already felt a connection to Roger Ebert from having watched his movie reviews with his compatriot Gene Siskel for so many years. So, as I was shedding a few tears at the end of the movie during scenes of his funeral, I was still glad I had watched it. And Ebert himself said, in this movie, very interesting things about how movies promote, and are often based on, our human capacity for empathy. He said, “For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. The purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. [Movies] help us to identify with the people who are sharing this life with us.”

And indeed, the life that we all share as humans involves both sadness and happiness, both tragedy and great success, both sorrow and joy. If we only read books and saw movies and watched TV shows that were all lightness and happiness, comedy but no tragedy, we would not be making that human connection that we all desire–or at least, not as fully. (Although I know people who only watch comedies, saying that real life involves enough sadness–just watching the news every night gives one a full serving of tragedy–so why chose to watch fictional tragedy? For them, movies and TV are an escape, and I agree, that is a perfectly valid use of media.)

I will admit that I don’t subject myself to certain movies that would be too painful to bear, empathetically speaking. I don’t go to see movies about children who are murdered, for example. And as my children will attest, when I do see movies that are about truly horrible things, I fall apart. They will never forget walking out of the movie “No Country for Old Men” as I was crying uncontrollably. I will never forget driving home from the movie “The Pawnbroker” 35 years ago, sobbing as my poor husband was trying to negotiate driving on icy streets after an ice storm that hit while we were inside the theater. I was just devastated by it, and haven’t been able to make myself watch it again.

So, what do you think? I would love for you to join this conversation and tell me, why do you chose to read books or see movies or TV shows that make you cry?

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