Science Says Crying Over TV Shows Is Good For You So Grab The Tissues

Whether it's a breakup, an untimely death or a host of other trials - we all love an ugly cry in front of the TV or a movie screen from time to time. But science now says there's a reason why the hardships of fictional characters can get you right in the feels. And don't worry - those tugs on your heartstrings are actually good for you.

Let me explain... psychologists call the relationships we form with fictional characters parasocial. In other words they are one-directional: because we know these individuals intimately, but they know nothing about us.

Credit: Unsplash/steinar engeland
Credit: Unsplash/steinar engeland

"The interesting thing is that our brains aren't really built to distinguish between whether a relationship is real or fictional," explains Jennifer Barnes, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oklahoma in an interview. "So these friendships can convey a lot of real-world benefits."

Benefits including a boost to your self-esteem, a decrease in loneliness and a sense of belonging. Not bad for a Netflix binge and probably the reason why you wish Mrs Maisel were your BFF.

On the flip side there's less research on the psychological consequences that can occur when one of these parasocial relationship comes to an end or is in some way damaged - say if you realise they aren't the person you thought they were (we're looking at you Rose, there definitely was room on that door).

Unsplash/jeshootscom
Unsplash/jeshootscom

"If a writer of a show decides to do something bad to that character, or heaven forbid kill that character off, you're left with a very real emotional response," explains Jennifer. "When you spend an hour every week with a person for an entire television season, they really do become a sort of friend - so it's totally normal to feel upset over them."

And the phenomenon is nothing new. It's a modern example of what phiolosohpers have been referring to as the paradox of tragedy for millennia. Sure sadness is a negative emotion and we don't enjoy feeling it IRL but somehow we enjoy tragic fiction. Humans are just paradoxical like that.

One theory about the paradox of tragedy that it's because tragic fiction provides catharsis: meaning you can purge your negative emotions and get them out of your system. Research also shows that people tend to feel better after crying (and possibly a tub of Ben & Jerry's).

Credit: Unsplash/thibaultpenin
Credit: Unsplash/thibaultpenin

Another theory is that we're feeling meta-emotions: the feelings that we have about certain feelings. In other words: yes we're feeling sad in that moment but we are also feeling glad about feeling sad because it proves that we can feel empathetic on behalf of these fictional characters.

Jennifer's other research suggests that watching fictional TV dramas improves people's ability to read the feelings of other people, a skill known as emotional intelligence.

In a 2015 study, she found that people who watched an episode of The Good Wife were better able to correctly identify the emotions being conveyed in photos of human faces, compared to those who watched a non-fiction documentary or no television. See TV is good for you after all. And Jennifer warns that for that boost in emotional intelligence to happen you have to be invested in what you're watching - channel hoppers will not benefit.

Other research suggests that watching TV that depicts human emotion and compassion makes viewers kinder and more altruistic toward others who are different from them. It's the on-screen equivalent of becoming friends with and learning more about people whose social category is different to yours. You learn to better understand those people.

While there are definite benefits to being invested in your favourite Amazon Prime series, Barnes has a word of caution: "We should make sure we're also feeling just as much empathy for real people, including real people we don't know," she says. In her lab she discovered that some study participants reported feeling sadder about the theoretical death of a favourite fictional character than the theoretical death of a real-life classmate or coworker.

Credit: Unsplash/john tuesday
Credit: Unsplash/john tuesday

And with all things: it's about balance. It's possible to become too upset about a television show you're binge watching, especially if you have other underlying mental health issues.

"Sadness about fictional events can be extremely intense," warns Barnes, but shouldn't linger for more than an hour or two. "If you're feeling sad about it several days or weeks afterward and it's causing real-world distress, that might be a sign that you're perhaps too invested in what's going on."

But if it's not causing personal distress on your ability to function Barnes gives your drama-series sob-fest the go-ahead because "feeling things, both good and bad, makes us feel alive."

Featured Image Credit: Unsplash/aliyah jamous

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