Why Tragedy Makes Us Happy: The Secret of The Titanic


What is it about the Titanic, exactly?

As our ongoing love affair with the Titanic illustrates, we are strangely transfixed by things that are sad and epic. There is an inexplicable sense of catharsis, satisfaction—and yes, pleasure—when we engross ourselves in a world of cruel fate, destroyed lives, and of course, doomed romances.

Why is it that tragedies such as the Titanic have the power to transfix us—far more than happy stories? The reason can’t just be schadenfreude—or morbid curiosity. There must be a much deeper reason that explains why pain can give us pleasure.

See why at their core, tragedies are designed to make us happy.

The Power of a Tear-Jerker

Let’s first turn to a science. In a study at Ohio State University, Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick set out to prove that watching a tragedy has a positive effect on our mood.

In the study, 361 college students were asked to sit down and watch the abridged version of Atonement. (Brief film synopsis: man and woman fall in love, man and woman die.) The students filled out questionnaires before, during, and after the movie, which gauged their levels of happiness. After the movie concluded, the students wrote a personal reflection on “their goals, their relationships, and life in general.”

What happened? Those who reflected upon their relationships as a result of the movie felt happier than they had at the beginning. Watching a romance crash and burn on screen reminded them what they valued about their own relationships. Meanwhile, those viewers who compared their individual lives to the main characters (ie “at least my life isn’t as bad as this”), did not show an increase in happiness. The results suggest that appreciating the people you love makes you happier than appreciating yourself.

But while the above a pleasant explanation – it is still not entirely satisfying. A film is most potent when it makes us momentarily forget our own life and relationships, and instead enter those of others. In the case of tragedies, this means that we are actively choosing to experience another person’s pain. We are still left with the niggling question: why would we actively seek out stories of sorrow?

The Pleasure of Pain

John Keats may have offered the best answer to the above question in the early 19th-century. As he wrote in “Ode to Melancholy:”

Ay, in the very temple of Delight /

Veil’d Melancholy has her Sovran shrine…

Keats, among others, argued that there could be no pleasure without pain, that happiness and sorrow are inextricably linked. To experience true joy, one must have a deep understanding of true sorrow. In his famous poem Lamia, he noted the limitations of trying to “un-perplex bliss from its neighbor pain.” Separating pain and beauty, he argued, meant undoing human experience.

Keats’s life was the perfect example of his philosophy: he died at age twenty-six, leaving behind the woman he loved. We remember his life because it was a mixture of incredible joy and incredible heartache. It is the same way we remember The Titanic, Romeo and Juliet, Hector and Andromache—and the myriad of other tragic legends that have endured for centuries.

Under the Keatsian theory of pain, witnessing sorrow—even indirectly—encourages us to find beauty in places we may not have originally looked. It is only because we know that the Titanic sank that we are enchanted by the smallest details in the ship’s gilded handrails. It is because we are expecting a fateful collision that the mundane conversations aboard ship acquire a touching, prophetic quality. It is when we think a romance might end that we appreciate it the most. Would we still be watching The Titanic if Jack and Rose lived happily ever after?

At their core, tragedies allow us to experience pain and sorrow in a controlled way. We feel an intensity of emotion—arguably a form of beauty—while being spared the true horrors of grief.

When Tragedy Becomes Art

It’s important to note that not all disasters are upgraded to the level of “tragedy.” No one remembers the dozens of other horrific maritime disasters that rivaled The Titanic – the Dona Paz, the SS Sultana, or the SS General Slocum. We only tend to remember those events that have been re-crafted into cohesive narratives—in other words, into art. The weight we attach to them is directly proportional to their sense of artistic completeness.

We don’t remember the Titanic because of the giant steel mass that lurks at the bottom of the ocean—rather, we remember the significance that has been attached to it. The Titanic has become an emblem of man’s hubris, the anxiety surrounding modernity, and the inherent fragility of something that appears invincible.

It is one of the last, intact relics of the Old World – a microcosm of the opulence and rigid social stratification that disappeared into the sea at the same time it was disappearing from the larger world.

The enduring mythology and larger-than-life significance surrounding the Titanic reflects the way we all subconsciously may seek something larger than ourselves. We are hoping for our lives to have meaning outside of our day-to-day tasks.

Crucially, though, it’s not necessary to manufacture tragedy in order to have an “epic” life or an “epic” romance. If the last two millennia have taught us anything, it’s that we can craft art out of nearly everything – from the smallest, blandest interactions. The way to create meaning out of our relationships is to first treat relationships themselves as a work of art.

Do that, and you might end up creating your own miniature epic.