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Leonardo DiCaprio, in character as Jack, holds Kate Winslet, as Rose, as the ship sinks in Titanic.

MERIE W. WALLACE/MERIE W. WALLACE/AP

At last, researchers have uncovered why people love watching movies with a box of Kleenex by their side.

Tearjerkers offer a temporary mood boost, an Ohio State University study has found.

The phenomenon is not a case of schadenfreude – delighting in others' misery – but of gratitude for one's own good fortune.

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"Tragic stories often focus on themes of eternal love, and this leads viewers to think about their loved ones and count their blessings," said Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, lead author of the study and associate professor of communication at Ohio State.

That means movies such as Titanic, The Notebook and P.S. I Love You could be Hollywood's answer to antidepressants.

The study is the first to take a scientific approach to explaining the popularity of fictional tragedies, a mystery that has baffled philosophers for millennia, Ms. Knobloch-Westerwick said. (Not to mention movie critics.)

The study, to be published in the journal Communication Research, involved 361 college students who watched an abridged version of the 2007 movie Atonement. In the film, two young lovers become casualties of war and lies.

Before and after viewing the movie, participants answered questions designed to measure their overall happiness. They also rated the intensity of their emotions, including sadness, at intervals before, after and during the film.

Later, they reflected on their enjoyment of the movie and how the story affected their feelings about themselves, their goals, relationships and life in general.

Those who reported the greatest increase in sadness during the flick were the most likely to mention important people in their lives and feel a surge in happiness, the researchers found.

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"Tragedies don't boost life happiness by making viewers think more about themselves. They appeal to people because they help them to appreciate their own relationships more," Ms. Knobloch-Westerwick said.

The findings are consistent with psychology research showing that negative moods make people more reflective about their lives, she said.

Since close relationships are a source of happiness for most people, thinking about them increases feelings of well-being. Or so the theory goes.

Odds are a screening of Ghost isn't going to change the minds of a couple on the verge of divorce. The War of the Roses, perhaps.

What's your favourite sad movie? Does watching a tearjerker make you feel better about life?

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About the Author

Adriana Barton is based in The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver bureau. Her article on growing up with counterculture parents is published in a McGraw-Hill anthology, right after an essay by Margaret Atwood. She wishes her last name didn’t start with B. More

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