In the claws of sadness: why do people like sad art?

“I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand —
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep — while I weep!”

— Edgar Allan Poe – Dream within a dream
Paweł Czerwiński | Unsplash

Everybody wants to be happy, right? For many people, the main goal in life is to maximize happiness. But why don’t we put some sad music in the background? Honestly, I don’t know many optimistic books, songs, or movies. They don’t feed my soul. I need sorrow, contemplation, or at least touching lyrics. Am I the only one? Of course not. But there is a question – why do some people like to suffer by consuming sad art?

Let’s move to ancient Greece. Maybe some of you remember a literature lesson about Greek theatre? Catharsis. Feeling purified and relieved after experiencing strong emotions. Even a thousand years ago, they knew mixed feelings were essential in turning the overall experience into a positive one. In terms of art, being deeply emotionally moved can be positive even if it contains sad emotions. We can feel touched to the bones, but it is pleasurable – that’s the paradox of tragedy. Moreover, art that involves negative emotions is perceived as less dull, more intense, and beautiful. Who never said that a sad song is beautiful, cast the first stone. 

In art, even disgust plays a crucial role. Books or movies that run smoothly from the beginning to the end are boring. We demand to be worried for a protagonist. In a different case – how can we identify with the person with no disturbances in life? Unrequited love, troublesome relationships, accidents, and betrayals are what the public wants. 

Like in poetry – Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Poe – led quite turbulent lives, and the feeling of despair and emptiness inspired many artists. Can you recall one poem based on positive emotions? They are pretty rare, right? What can be better than expressing your existential pain in art? Some people find the sorrow art pleasurable, while others consume it to reflect on their lives and process complex emotions. Undoubtedly, a lot of artworks are relatable. We can feel less alone with our thoughts because we see that more people went through a similar experience.

According to scientific research, we tend to remember better things that cause strong emotions. Compering real-life and fictional events – it’s easier to remember real joyful events. On the other hand, when it comes to fictional creations – the sad variant of being moved is more memorable. We can say that all chills and goose bumps (as the physiological response of the autonomic nervous system) experienced through art is a sign that we are emotionally moved, and it has a significant memory effect. People can recall which artwork elicited strong emotion and detect the specific moment that caused chills and goose bumps, even after some time. 

We can experience two kinds of moving emotions – sadly and joyfully. In the first case, we can discuss loss – like separation or death. Overall sad memories are mixed with a positive appreciation – feelings of love, empathy, or valuable memories. Same with farewells – they are not only painful but also sadly moving – they show us the pain of temporary or permanent goodbye and underline that this relationship was essential to us. We can spot the experience of joyfully moving nature in nostalgic memories from childhood or thoughts about our former relationship. The predominant positive feelings come together with slight negatives, such as being aware that our youth passed forever or that we cannot reunite with the past lover. 

No one wants to be sad, miserable, or depressed. It’s not demandable. But still, it didn’t disturb the will to be deeply emotionally touched by the factors we can control. How? You can choose the music or movie to make you feel emotionally moved – when we consciously seek this kind of discomfort. The emotional response will be different from those affected by real-life events. Psychologically speaking, it is a safe space for us. During that, we can learn how to experience complex emotions. Nothing happening on a stage or in a book can harm us. We can continue an exposure or distance ourselves from it at any moment, allowing people to embrace the negative experience positively. The same happens when we are watching a brutal film – violence or morally questionable actions are more accessible for us to handle when we can explain to ourselves that no real person or animal has been physically harmed. 

You don’t need to be worried. Being fascinated by sad art doesn’t automatically make you depressed. It’s not working like that. Precisely the opposite, it can be an excellent way to regulate your emotions. Or at least make your emotional life richer because every emotion is essential.

Aleksandra Kanasiuk 

Max Planck Institute | Beautifully Sad: Why We Enjoy Negative Emotions in Movies and Art
Winfried Menninghaus, Valentin Wagner, Julian Hanich, Eugen Wassiliwizky, Thomas Jacobsen and Stefan Koelsch | The Distancing-Embracing model of the enjoyment of negative emotions in art reception 

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