The good in being sad

According to Zillmann’s Mood Management theory (1988) we are all hedonists continuously striving for a positive mood. So what about negative media content?

Thrilling or sad movies will fulfil the hedonistic principle as long as the good guys win in the end. The prevailing of the leading character will be such a rush it will diminish previous peril and thereby saving our hedonistic selves. Unfortunately, this cannot explain all as Love Story ends very bad yet is loved across generations. And what about a football match in which the Germans again snag the championship title away from our proud nation. These media ‘entertainment’ contents break the hedonistic principle. So if it does not make us happy, why do we watch it?

The surprising answer is because it does make us happy.

Oliver (1993) informs us that the missing link in the hedonistic chain is ‘meta-emotions’. It is not so much the sadness itself we enjoy but the fact that we are ‘touched’ by a certain movie, as if flexing a muscle to see if it can move. Basically it is the way we feel about how we feel. We might be happy that we are feeling a certain way, or perhaps we are ashamed of our feelings. We might think our feelings are appropriate, or not. We might feel asserted in our gender-governed roles by experiencing and displaying certain emotions, or quite the opposite. To cry with a sad movie shows empathy en reinforces a self-image of a kind heart and a caring soul. To scream at the German football players shows where your loyalties lie and just how much you love sports, to yourself and to others. And we can feel good about that. We can like feeling the way we do even if the emotion itself is a negative one.

Meta-emotions are the plug in the sad-paradox hole of Mood Management theory. Our feelings regarding our feelings create a nice loop in which we confirm our hedonistic nature, but meta-emotions do more than just that. They explain to us why negative media content is not just entertaining but also functional in role corresponding behaviour , self-image and social cohesion.

Oliver, M.B. (1993). Exploring the paradox of the enjoyment of sad films. Human Communication Research, 19, 315-342.
Zillmann, D. (1988). Mood management: Using entertainment to full advantage. In L. Donohew, H. E. Sypher & E. T. Higgins (Hrsg.), Communication, social cognition, and affect (S. 147-171). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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