Why Are We Drawn to Tragic Stories?

Tragedy Comedy Masks“Why is it, I wonder, that people want to feel sad at miserable and tragic happenings which they certainly would not like to suffer themselves? Yet as spectators they do want to suffer the sadness and indeed their whole pleasure is just in this. What a wretched sort of madness! For if one is oneself subject to the kind of emotions one sees on the stage, one is all the more moved by them. Yet when one suffers in real life, this is described as ‘misery,’ and when one feels for others, we call it ‘compassion.’ But there can be no real compassion for fictions on the stage. A man listening to a play is not called upon to help the sufferer, he is merely invited to feel sad. And the sadder he feels, the higher is his opinion of the actor of the fantasy. If the disasters which happen to people on the stage (disasters which either took place in the remote past or else are pure inventions) are represented in such a way that the spectator does not feel sad, he will go out of the theater in disgust and speak disparagingly of the performance; but so long as he feels sad, he will stay fixed in his place, enjoying every moment.”*

The quote above was written around 400 A.D. by a man who is known to us as St. Augustine, but it could have been written today – or it could have been written by someone watching a Greek tragedy 2500 years ago. Although the question of why we are drawn to sad or tragic stories has been around for thousands of years, I don’t think we totally understand why we are willing to pay for a book or to see a play that makes us shed tears.

Who among us would want to lead a life like the tragic characters in the works of Shakespeare, Dickens, Flaubert, or the great Greek tragedians? Who among us is not shocked and saddened by the terrible things that happen to our family members and close friends? No one. Yet we continue to enjoy the sad tales, both real and fictional, that don’t actually touch our lives.

After reading St. Augustine’s thoughts on tragedies I began to search for answers to the questions he asked. Over and over again I found references to a single study done by Professor Silvia Knoblock-Westerwick who teaches in the School of Communication at The Ohio State University. “Philosophers, she says, “have considered this question over the millennia, but there hasn’t been much scientific attention to the question.”

In her study she had 361 college students watch a movie in which two lovers are separated during wartime and die. She questioned the students about their feelings before, during, and after the movie, and then had them write about their feelings. Her major finding was that, “. . . negative emotions, like sadness, make you think more critically about your situation.  So seeing a tragic movie about star-crossed lovers may make you sad, but that will cause you to think more about your own close relationships and appreciate them more.”

She came to many other conclusions as a result of the study, so I highly recommend that you read the article from which I have quoted her. Science Daily and Psychology Today have also featured related articles that may interest you.

And if you want to increase your happiness by reading sad books, try any of the ten devastatingly sad books suggested by Flavorwire.

* The Confessions of St. Augustine (Rex Warner trans.)

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