Why do we love sad stories?


Image by Sean Durham

Image by Sean Durham

I never used to like sad stories. I thought, isn’t there enough sadness in my life, between the death of loved ones and my stubbed toe (stubbed toes are always tragic in the moment, admit it)? Sad is bad. But between set readings for writing classes and recommendations from friends, I’ve had to break the habit. Any decent writer has to sample the full range of fiction, they tell me.

So I read The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

Ho-ly hell. Anyone who’s read it knows, right? For those that haven’t, all you need know that my heartstrings were not pulled. They were stretched across the room and then slashed into teeny tiny pieces. Granted, McCarthy’s prose is to die for, but I’d be even more inclined to take up that offer after finishing the final chapter, red-eyed and white-knuckled late in the night. Instead, I curled up into a tight ball under the blanket and asked myself:

Why do people like sad stories so much?

Why has Titanic resonated across generations, and why do people keep insisting I watch the damn thing? Why have Nicholas Sparks’ novels (I still can’t believe this is his real name) captured the heart of what seems like every female in the known universe?

Psychology Today says negative situations trigger stronger reactions in our caveman brains than positive situations. That’s because it’s more important to react to a saber-tooth attack than a birthday cake (and what does a caveman want with a birthday cake, anyway? They’re all on the Paleo diet).

Another study found people who are sad had stronger responses to sad material. They identified with characters and remembered more details.

Basically, all this psych-speak tells us two things:

  1. We are more emotionally receptive to sad stories.
  2. They resonate even more with us when we’re already sad.

Next question: is this healthy? Sad is bad, right?

Well, in the case of The Road, I got to experience the hopelessness of a father and son wandering through a literally dark (the air is full of ash, we don’t know why), post-apocalyptic world of cults and cannibals. But the next morning, I uncurled myself and went outside. The sun was shining; all was well. I was able to vicariously experience that world and compare it to my own (plus, that prose was superb). I’m experiencing a fuller range of human emotion without the mortal peril.

There are those that say living vicariously through fictional characters is unhealthy, like we’re going to start shooting people because we played Grand Theft Auto V. But the thing about vicarious emotions is that while we feel a reflection of another’s experience, we know we don’t actually have to deal with the situation. As much as we become attached to the characters of a show, movie or book, part of us must know they’re not real. Unless you’re completely delusional, in which case, please don’t watch Game of Thrones. And maybe ease up on the GTA as well.



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