My husband and I spent several nights this summer watching the HBO mini-series Chernobyl. If you haven't seen it, it's extremely well made and also extremely miserable, telling the story of mind-boggling incompetence and mass death (as well as heroism) following one of humanity's worst nuclear accidents ever. People's faces literally melt off.
Watching such things should be the last way anyone would want to spend their time, so why on earth did we consider this a nice way to pass the time after a day at the beach? It's a question I never thought to consider in-depth before, but science, apparently, is way ahead of me. A number of studies have looked into why so many of us love sad music and movies with fascinating results.
Loving depressing art says good things about your personality.
The first question to be answered is: are we weirdos? How common is a love of sad art and what type of people exactly go in for this sort of thing? A 2016 study published in Frontiers in Psychology offers a fascinating answer.
To figure out exactly what kind of person enjoys depressing music, the researchers played a sad, little known instrumental piece to 102 volunteers, gauging their response to the song as well as testing their personalities. A significant number of participants reported being pleasurably moved by the music. But this group wasn't just a random selection of subjects. Instead, they shared a few key traits.
"Participants who experienced being moved reported intense, pleasurable, and yet sad emotions at the same time. Crucially, we found that the people who were moved by the piece also scored highly on empathy. Conversely, those with a tendency of being low on empathy hardly ever reported being moved by this music," reported study author Tuomas Eerola on The Conversation.
But wait, you might respond. Why would those who are highly sensitive to others' emotions want to listen to music that's likely to infect them with sadness? You'd be right to make this objection. Just being empathetic wasn't enough to predispose one to liking sad art. You also need to be able to keep your emotions under a certain degree of control.
"Our findings suggest that the key to the enjoyment is not only the ability to empathize with the sad emotions expressed by the music, but also the ability to self-regulate and distance oneself from this process," Eerola continues.
In short, it's pretty normal for people to like sad music and movies. But in order to appreciate this sort of gloomy material, you need a particular personality. You have to be both sensitive to others' feelings and able to regulate your own responses. High EQ and emotional control? Those are qualities fans of moody art can go ahead and brag about.
Misery loves company? Not quite.
It's clear that it takes a certain personality type to appreciate sad songs. But that leaves another question unanswered. Exactly what do people who enjoy tearjerkers get out of experiencing sadness at an artistic distance?
We all know the stereotype of the depressed or broken-hearted person consoling themselves with some weepy ballad played on repeat. Is it simply that sad art makes us feel less alone with our sadness? Not exactly, Eerola explained to Medium publication Elemental. The appeal of sad art is more complicated than a simple case of "misery loves company."
"The fact that the music or art is non-interactive is actually an advantage in situations of loss and sadness since there is no judgment, no probing. An artwork or song that a person can relate to can provide comfort without the baggage of social interaction with another human being," he explains. Your 'sad songs' playlist, in other words, commiserates but doesn't judge or demand.
How about the case of someone not suffering through a loss deciding to crank up the Adele or Elliott Smith? Even if you're not in any acute distress, we all live in a world that's not short of pain and injustice. Sad songs may be a way of acknowledging and working through that truth in a healthy way.
According to another 2011 study highlighted in the same Elemental piece, sad art allows us to get in touch with our negative emotions in order to release them. "Somewhat paradoxically, avoiding negative emotional experiences may be associated with negative outcomes while accepting negative emotional experiences may be associated with positive outcomes," the study authors wrote.
In short, loving sad art isn't about wallowing and it isn't just for depressive teens or the broken hearted. A taste for the melancholy not only indicates you are probably high in empathy, but also suggests you are employing thoughtful and effective strategies to work through the inevitable sadness and struggles of life.
So go ahead and sing along with that sad ballad or sniffle through your favorite weepy film. You're not strange or miserable. You're empathetic and wise.