Happily Never After: Why Sad Endings May Be More Uplifting

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Hollywood movies are best known for one thing – a charming happy ending. But there’s a mounting body of evidence to show that our attraction to a satisfying, uplifting ending, may actually be bringing us down.

Our culture has become accustomed to beautiful, positive story endings in which all of the characters get their just desserts and the people we like and admire get everything they dream of and more. We’re so set on creating happy endings that we’ve even adapted traditional children’s stories and fairy tales to reflect the trend too. Did you know that the original version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid ends with the Prince decided to marry another woman, prompting the mermaid to throw herself off the cliffs and into the sea where her body dissolves into seam foam?

Those Brothers Grimm didn’t pay much attention to the need for a happy ending or for a sugar-coated view of the world in any of their much-loved stories. In the original Cinderella, the wicked step-mother hands her daughters a knife and encourages them to slice parts of their feet off to make them fit into the glass slipper.

The idea of a happy ending has emerged from Hollywood cinema over the last 100 years, but it hasn’t infiltrated all film and television production. Scandinavian storytelling is known for it’s gritty, realistic plot lines and its gained a wave of popularity with international audiences in the last few years. Denmark, which is regularly voted one of the happiest countries in the world, is known for its realistic dramas in which the central characters usually end up worse off than when they started.

So what’s going on, and what should we be watching to make us feel the most happy?

The surprising answer is that sad endings and realistic plot lines in which characters struggle with the ups and downs of every day life, are actually the most likely to leave us feeling happy and uplifted. Research shows that sad storylines that don’t resolve into happy endings actually encourage us to practice gratitude and increase our levels of contentment about our own lives.

Positive Psychology Professor Mary Beth Oliver claims that watching sad, stressful or difficult storylines leaves us feeling enriched, touched and more fulfilled. Conversely, watching people with so-called ‘perfect’ lives can actually leave us feeling that our own lives are inferior in comparison, or that our relationships are lacking.

Something to keep in mind next time you’re scrolling through your Netflix account.

 

 

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