Heartbreaking. Gut-wrenching. Devastating. Why do we like sad stories?

This is a digested version of my —very long— doctoral dissertation.

The “sadness paradox,” deriving pleasure from the consumption of sad stories, has intrigued philosophers and psychologists for a very long time. Why do we enjoy consuming sad stories when sad stories make us sad? A popular explanation is catharsis, that we cherish sad stories because they provide relief from the accumulated effect of negative emotions. Nevertheless, research does not support the calming effect of catharsis, and a need for relief cannot explain either why perfectly happy people can still enjoy a sad story.

Another explanation for the sadness paradox is that experiencing sadness enhances the positive effect of a happy ending. True, but that cannot explain why we also enjoy stories with an unhappy ending. It has also been proposed that rather than enjoying sad films, we appreciate them when we find them meaningful and insightful, because they inspire feelings of compassion and connectedness and invite us to reflect on the human condition. While this view is correct—we tend to find sad stories meaningful—mere appreciation cannot explain the addiction-like enthusiasm with which audiences consume “over-the-top” tearjerkers such as telenovelas. For instance, in the 1990s, Los Ricos También Lloran led to a temporary ceasefire between warring Abkhazia and Georgia during its transmission. Not only we enjoy sad stories, but we seem irresistibly attracted to them.

Could it be that we enjoy isn’t sadness? That seems to be the case. Although research has confirmed an association between experiencing sadness and the enjoyment of sad films, enjoyment of sad films seems better explained by the experience of feelings of being moved. These are feelings of attachment, empathy, compassion, self-gratification, and improved wellbeing, feelings that promote approach and altruistic behavior. Following convention from basic emotions theories, which limit the number of basic humans emotions, feelings of being moved have been categorized as mixed emotions, feeling happy and sad at the same time. Consequently, it has been proposed that what we enjoy are representations of kindness, generosity, and forgiveness, as well as the aesthetic quality of the film (i.e., the beauty of its photography or its music) and that sadness simply intensifies the positive aspect of these happy moments. But what when the positive instances in a story are simply too brief to overcome the effect of the sad ones? Take Son of Saul, the story of a man interned in a Nazi concentration camp trying to give a proper Jewish burial to his son. Hard to watch, with hardly any prosocial scene, yet one of the most rewarding films from recent years.

My research started by accepting all these explanations as correct (except for the catharsis one) but rejecting the idea that being moved corresponds to feeling happy and sad at the same time. Being moved may feel like being happy and sad at the same time but provokes markedly different behavior. Happiness makes us want to play and dance. Sadness makes us want to withdraw from others. Being moved leads to an increased desire to connect with others and comfort them. Following models of altruism, I wondered whether compassion, the typical empathic response to witnessing other’s distress, could explain narrative engagement and predict a moved state. Then, running a parallel between how we derive gratification from engaging with challenging activities (i.e., video games), I hypothesized that narrative engagement would lead to enjoyment.

Empathy has been identified as a necessary condition for narrative engagement. Empathy is often described as feeling what the other feels. However, empathy is not a matching of emotions, but an emotional response that corresponds to the perceived emotional state of someone else. Thus, as an empathic response, compassion is not feeling sad like the other but feeling concern for the welfare of the other, a concern that may accompanied by some measure of distress but that encourages approach and a desire to help rather than withdrawal, like sadness does. Hence, I expected that compassion would increase interest in a story as a way to acquire information about whether a character’s circumstances would improve.

I also hypothesized that enjoyment would be linked to the hormonal changes resulting from having a compassionate response. Based on previous research, I suspected an association between changes in the levels of endorphins, neurotransmitters associated with the experience of pleasure, and enjoyment. Since endorphin activity in the brain cannot be easily measured, I looked for changes in the levels of Interleukin 18 (IL-18) in saliva. IL-18 is a cytokine whose levels in the blood have been associated with the activity of endorphin receptors in the brain.

Participants gave a saliva sample before watching either a short sad film, Love is Never Wasted, or a mildly positive episode of a travel vlog, Alex por el Mundo – MandalayAfterwardthey filled up a series of questionnaires that assessed for felt compassion, engagement, enjoyment, and whether they reached a moved state. Finally, participants gave a second saliva sample. Results from the questionnaires showed that, for participants who watched the sad film, higher levels of compassion led to higher levels of enjoyment, gratification, and being moved. While sadness was associated with compassion, engagement, and being moved, it did not predict enjoyment. This suggests that participants who enjoyed the sad film did so not because the film made them sad but because their engagement was fueled by compassion.

Results from analyzing changes in salivary IL-18 showed a moderate negative association with enjoyment. At first glance, this negative association is counterintuitive. One would expect that enjoyment would be connected to the experience of pleasure and pleasure with higher levels of endorphins. Nevertheless, this negative association between changes in the levels of IL-18 and enjoyment agrees with predictions from models of motivation that propose that during a distressful state, decreased activation of the endorphin receptors in the brain makes us crave social contact as a way to increase their activity and procure comfort. That is, that enjoyment of a sad film, as it occurs with games, may depend not so much on having a happy ending but on how bad we want that happy ending.

In conclusion, we do not enjoy sad stories because they make us sad, but because they engage us. Sad stories take advantage of a primal need to comfort and be comforted to capture our attention.

What are the practical implications of these findings? First, that creating characters worthy of compassion is an efficient way to engage audiences. Second, that enjoyment does not depend solely on experiencing pleasure but of having hope. Whether compassion translates to increased interest in a story or an altruistic response in real life relies on an assessment of whether our efforts will pay off. Rather than sadness enhancing the flavor of happiness, a few sprinkles of happiness may be what keeps our compassion alive, by increasing hope.