A while back, as one of my first articles for the SixTAY Days of Writing challenge, I posed a question. Why do I like sad things? At the end of the piece I mused that we, as humans, might seek emotional extremes on a more general level instead of the perpetual happiness so many claim to desire. My short, simplistic analysis has since been utterly dwarfed by all of the excellent responses I received in the comments. I thought it would be fun to go through how our community answered my question and to provide my thoughts on their philosophies (in a more official manner than responding to their comments). Since I don’t want to alter anyone’s opinion in any way, I won’t be editing these responses. With that said, in the interest of organization I’m going to focus on discussing the answers to the article’s title that these comments contain. If your response is on here and you want me to remove it for any reason, please let me know! I just got a lot out of everyone’s ideas on a personal level and wanted to share how thought-provoking they were.
“That’s a question that I’ve probably asked myself quite a lot of times. When I hear about how a work is supposed to be really depressing I’m instantly interested and when actually consuming something depressed I’m ‘suprised’ by what that content makes me feel like. A lot of the works that I hold in high regard tend to be of that sort. On the other hand if feel like shit for reasons that have nothing to do with media I usually go for other media.
I guess there is also a certain kind of quality to works that make you feel something outside the usual.”
This one was fascinating to me, since it was almost opposite to my analysis. Instead of seeking emotional extremes, xjpegx posits that we seek stories that elicit different emotions than we are currently feeling. Perhaps we are searching for some kind of emotional equilibrium instead of an emotional high. This is obvious when we want to experience happy stories when we are feeling down, but the reverse could make just as much sense. I certainly don’t want to watch Madoka Magica when I’m feeling depressed, so this theory seems much more broadly applicable than mine.
“It part of the reason why in the Matrix universe, the first iterations of the simulation, it was a paradise, and people constantly rebelled. It was too perfect. Having imperfections, moments of pain and suffering, are part of the human experience. To be constantly happy makes us feel uneasy, and maybe by engaging in sad experiences, you are reminding yourself of your own humanity.
Or, you know, you just like it?”
This is a great analysis, and not just because of the seamless use of one of my favorite movies to frame the point. Christian Cashman’s argument that sadness is simply a part of our nature is oddly comforting. It’s not just ok to feel sad, it’s ok to want to feel sad sometimes. It’s just a natural balance between our various emotions.
Also valuable is the reminder that I’m probably just overthinking things. As much as I love philosophical musings, it’s good to stay grounded in simplicity from time to time.
“Not sure, but I do know that negatively-tinged memories have a stronger foothold in the brain than happy ones, so that’s probably related to it in some way.
Madoka was also something special because at the time, while the industry had “dark magical girl” shows, it never had dark quite like Gen Urobuchi’s style of writing and plotting. It was tightly scripted, impactful, and had one of the best endings I’ve ever seen. (and now the industry is flooded with dark magical girl shows each year....)
In contrast, I found Brothers to be too...manipulative? I mean, from a game mechanics perspective, the final sequence was great. However I never connected to the characters at all throughout the game, so the impact was very much lost on me (to be fair to the game, when I played it I was very much in a sombre state of mind, so there was never a “happy state” for the game to drag me down into). However, friends of mine also bawled their eyes out, so...you aren’t alone ;)”
Sulfy raises an excellent point. Negative memories, ones where we are sad, embarrassed, angry, or regretful, tend to stick around much more frequently than positive ones. It’s possible that these sad stories simply leave a bigger impact when I experience them, making them more appealing to revisit. Another great reminder is the importance of character development when attempting to convey emotion. The archetypal characters in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons were more than enough to tug at my heartstrings, but I can understand the argument that they were underdeveloped. Sad stories are much easier to get invested in, and consequently enjoy, when the characters are well-written and believable. Good points all around.
“I’ve always gravitated towards darker stories. I find them to be more emotionally engaging and real. It just feels like there’s more to them and the happy sunshine and rainbow series that pop up all over the damn place. Those typically feel fake. They’re fun, and there are some that are genuinely impactful, but there aren’t nearly as many of those when compared to their darker brethren.”
I never responded to this post, so hopefully writing about it here will make up for that (sorry Nyren!). The idea here is that there is more room for a meaningful story when a series is willing to stray from the pleasant, predictable path. I agree, while happy stories have their place, they cannot provide the same weight, consequences, and tension that darker tales are capable of. Perhaps the appeal to these stories is simply their relative depth when compared to the run-of-the-mill cheeriness that seems to be so abundant.
“I think the thing to get away from is the conditioning that “sad” is an inherently negative emotion.
It isn’t. It’s perfectly natural. Humans want to feel feelings. For me, it’s Florence + The Machine. We want to feel engulfed in something larger than ourselves. It’s the appeal of art.
To get swept away by something like a great anime or movie or game or book is the goal that most creators want consumers to feel. It’s rare but I think even someone trying to elicit sadness is just trying to connect.
cuz isn’t that what it’s all about? I’m a hippie, secretly
[skipping over my response]
I mean I think that everyone just needs to internalize Inside Out and understand that melancholy is OK to feel!”
cdax’s first sentence here is one that I wish was in my article. It perfectly summarizes my feelings on this matter. Sadness doesn’t have to be negative. It certainly can be, but like anything it can be positive when it is appropriate. I also like the idea of sadness as a way to connect people. We are incredibly vulnerable when we are sad, so when we are reminded that others can feel the same way we forge an emotional bond with them. Turns out I may also secretly be a hippie.
“I just watched Madoka Magika about a month ago and it’s still with me. Reminded me of the same despair of the Dark Souls games (you’re never lost until you lose all hope). Fantastic show and one I know I’ll be returning to over and over again.
To answer your question tho, I think think experiencing these emotions in things that are low stakes (like video game or movies) can better equip us for hardship in life. I purposely play tough, punishing games to bring my salt up, so when I’m at work I have tools to help me process frustration. Sadness and tragedy could work similarly.”
I find haiiro3’s analysis particularly valuable, because it presents an actual use for saddening artwork. If we can prepare ourselves for trying times with a sort of practice run in the form of entertainment media, then we will be able to handle those difficult emotions much more easily. This isn’t just a way to understand the appeal of sad stories, it’s an argument for their inherent value.
“Brothers. Gutting. Absolutely gutting. T.T
If you like sad things though, may I recommend Grave of the Fireflies. Um. For reasons.”
Narelle’s response didn’t answer my question, but it did provide an enticing recommendation. I’ve heard good things about Grave of the Fireflies, I’ll be sure to check it out when I’m in the mood to be blue.
Thanks to all of you for your responses! Hopefully you don’t mind me showcasing them here, I just thought they were so great that they needed more appreciation!