“Fiction is a coping mechanism that does take us away from our everyday world,” says clinical psychologist John Mayer, PhD, who is also a novelist and screenwriter. “But it helps us with other important psychological issues in our lives.” Visiting a fictional world can be inspiring, because it gives us a chance to live in different reality and try out a different identity. Viewing fiction can encourage us to fight fears, can make us want to fall in love, can enhance our brain power, and help with mastery over our real worlds, says Mayer. In today’s busy, crazy, stressful world, many of us turn to television and film for distraction—but they may be more than a great escape.
We spoke to experts about the secret perks of being a TV-watching, movie-loving, fiction buff. Here are some of the ways fiction can enhance our emotional well-being:
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It helps us make meaning out of real-life situations.
The ancients did not have Marvel movies, yet myths and narratives about fantastic beings and heroes have been around forever. “Human beings are very much the ‘story-telling animal,'” says Jared Miracle, PhD, an anthropologist, folklore scholar, and self-professed fiction fan. “Our entire lives are constructed around fictional ideas. Myths from ancient times have been handed down to the present because they serve our psycho-social needs.”
It empowers women with kick-butt role models.
Audiences gravitate towards characters they’d like to emulate, so fictional female characters who are strong, yet have to cope with the pressures and burdens of romantic, family, and professional lives, can make us braver, says Barna W. Donovan, PhD, a professor in the Department of Communication and Media Culture at Saint Peter’s University in Jersey City, NJ and author of Conspiracy Theories. “Fictional entertainment inspires women to persevere through the ups and downs and challenges of everyday life through on-screen heroines who triumph through tough times or strive to achieve their dreams,” says Donovan. For example, shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, and Madame Secretary feature high-powered heroines who are relatable because they also have to deal with how messy life can be.
It takes us on a journey to a different world.
You can turn on the TV or slip into a movie and immediately enter another state, country, or even galaxy. “Fiction for pleasure and relaxation is still one of the most revered forms of entertainment,” says Kristen Pizzo, a high school teacher. “People thrive in getting lost in a different world. Think of Harry Potter, for example: A piece of us all wishes we could play Quidditch and cast spells.”
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It allows us to recharge.
We all need a time-out to unplug from life and reenergize. “Watching a good movie or TV show can recharge our mind because it gives us a chance to escape from the everyday stresses that often consume our thoughts,” says Alexis Conason, PsyD, a licensed psychologist and researcher. “When we are immersed in a movie or television show, we often ‘lose ourselves’ and are distracted from the worries and stresses that typically fill our minds.” Taking a break from our own neuroses and anxieties is important, she says.
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It offers the impetus and outlet for expressing emotions.
Fiction can make us feel awful and even make us cry—and that’s a good thing. “Sometimes we watch a character or storyline that we relate to, and this can help us feel understood and express emotions that are typically difficult,” says Conason. “For example, someone may have difficulty expressing emotions about a loved one’s death, but can cry at a sad movie with a storyline about bereavement. This emotional expression can also feel recharging.” A word of warning, though: In moderation this is healthy, but binge watching for hours on end to avoid dealing with real life is not, adds Conason.
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It gives us joy (even if it give us stress).
The brain registers pleasure from both upbeat stories and scary stories, as conflicts are presented and resolved. “People can experience great joy from fiction, whether it is a cathartic release of stress from vicariously seeing a victim who has been wronged get justice, or a hero saving someone from doom, or figuring out a mystery,” says Michael Grabowski, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Communication at Manhattan College in Bronx, NY, and editor of Neuroscience and Media. “When we watch something suspenseful, we experience increases in cortisol, a stress hormone. However, the climatic resolution of a story is accompanied by a release of dopamine, a naturally produced opioid that brings about a feeling of pleasure.” He says the same goes for a mystery: It may induce stress and confusion, but solving the mystery makes us happy.
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It prepares us to embrace change.
Although no one wants to see a real zombie apocalypse –well, some of us don’t, at least—some say the visual depiction of devastating events and hard times may take the edge off real-life events. “It helps prepare people psychologically for change, which reduces stress when change inevitably comes,” says Joe Stech, editor of Compelling Science Fiction. “Seeing characters face terrible adversity and overcome it can make challenges in our own lives less stressful by comparison, and can show us that ‘this too shall pass.'”
It helps us heal our broken hearts.
Who can forget pajama-clad Bridget Jones, swigging wine, and belting her blues away with a rendition of “All By Myself”? And, of course, we all recall how great it felt at the end of Bridget Jones’s Diary when she finally gets the guy. Fictional stories that take us on a healing journey may enhance our ability to make it through when bad things happen. “Fiction can give a new perspective to a seemingly hopeless situation, and can help model positive behavior in similar situations,” says Grabowski. “Social conditioning through viewing characters can offer possible responses to someone’s real-life relationships. In a way, fiction extends our ability to imagine possible outcomes to different scenarios, allowing us to feel more confident that we could cope if faced with a similar situation.” Over time, by changing the narrative, neural pathways in the brain may change to counter negative feelings and behaviors with new responses, he says.
It makes us laugh, which physically releases stress.
Having a good guffaw while watching comedy can lift you out of a bad day and be seriously therapeutic. “Jokes, comedy, and laughing are dynamic coping mechanisms that ward off stress, depression, sadness and loneliness, [just] to mention a few [problems],” says Mayer. “It is extremely difficult to genuinely laugh or smile when you are sad. But, comedy is a ‘dynamic coping mechanism’ because it also helps discharge the physical energy that stress causes.” A funny movie, a hilarious sitcom, a standup comedy special, or Jimmy Fallon’s antics on The Tonight Show can get you cackling—and as the laugh rises from your belly, you may also feel the stress lifting out of your body.
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It challenges us to use our imaginations.
Fantastical stories expand our minds, which moves us to examine, contemplate, and deal with reality, says Donovan. “The enormous success of all the superhero films today, along with the continuation of the Star Wars series, is very powerful evidence that people need and enjoy having their imaginations challenged,” he says. “Entertainment like this invites people to ponder the ‘what if’ questions. What if other worlds existed? What if we were able to make contact with other types of life forms or discover civilizations that are completely different from our own?” These interests can also lead to new insights and a sense of connection beyond our existing views of reality.
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