Fans of “This is Us” know that you don’t just watch the show. You feel it. And thanks to the NBC family drama, which is now in its second season, Tuesday night has practically become synonymous with sobbing. (Though, personally, I wait until Saturday to watch the show on Hulu, because that’s the day it’s most convenient for me to experience a full-on cry fest best described as an exorcism of emotions.)
The numbers hint that there are a lot of tissues being passed around: A whopping 14.76 million of us are watching “This is Us,” according to the ratings.
Before Jack and Rebecca came into our lives, though, “Grey’s Anatomy” tugged at our heartstrings. And long before that, Aristotle’s poetics cued the waterworks. So have we always been a bunch of masochists seeking out sadness in the form of entertainment?
Hardly, say the experts. In fact, a good cry is good for our emotional well-being.
We asked seven professionals to explain why exactly we love shows that make us cry. Sit back, because they’re delving deep.
1. We’re Releasing Stress Hormones
We already know a hearty LOL can feel good. In fact, laughing releases endorphins that make us feel good afterwards, explains Barbie Atkins, a Licensed Professional Counselor. Laughter even releases antibody-producing cells, so a good belly laugh can help boost your immune system, she explains.
But tears, too, can be a boon for our emotional well-being. “Those of us who have a good cry report having reduced tension,” Atkins explains. Meaning those cry sessions can act as an emotional release after a build-up of stress and frustration.
But you can’t just cut up an onion to get these benefits. “Emotional tears contain stress hormones, which get excreted from the body through crying, unlike non-emotional, onion tears, which are mostly water,” Atkins says.
2. We’re Experiencing Empathy
Shows like “This is Us” tug at our heartstrings, and we connect with characters because we understand them, or maybe have gone through something that’s being portrayed on-screen, explains Billie Bemis, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. Bemis, who owns a private practice in Colorado that focuses on helping people with relationship issues, says that most of us have empathy for others and their pain. “Even though the television shows that make us cry are usually not reality-based, we still feel empathy for the human experience that we’re viewing,” Bemis says. A television show might start the waterworks, but crying continues as we think through our own experiences.
3. We’re Voyeurs At Heart
It’s not necessarily that we love shows that make us sad, explains Rhonda Milrad, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and founder of online relationship community Relationup. Rather, we love shows with messages, themes, characters and family dynamics that resonate with us and bring us to tears. Also, there could be some voyeuristic tendencies at play.
“Shows about complex characters and even more complex family dynamics are often appealing to our voyeuristic nature,” Milrad says. “They pull back the curtain on relationships and allow us to witness private moments. This feeling of witnessing something forbidden is very seductive and addictive for us.”
4. These Shows Prompt Us To Reflect On Our Own Lives
The best TV shows have storylines that make us think about our own lives, says Racine R. Henry, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. “Since these story lines aren’t really happening to us, we can dive in and then turn off the TV and reflect on our actual lives,” she explains. “These emotional and dramatic shows challenge us to be appreciative of what we have, they compel us to confront the hurt that we often ignore and even inspire us to mend relationships.”
5. We Enjoy Emotional Experiences
Clinical Psychologist Dana Harron, Psy.D., explains that we are hungry for authentic emotional experiences. “Feeling something, even it it is sadness, makes us feel alive,” she says. “It makes us feel connected to other human beings.”
6. We Feel Validated
It is human nature for all of us to want to be emotionally touched through art, music, film, theater, television, poetry and literary content, says Dr. Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, the author of “The Self-Aware Parent” a regular expert child psychologist on “The Doctors” and a co-star on “Sex Box.”
“We long to know we are not alone and others share our experience,” Walfish says. “Something real, a moment of truth in a show or any work of art, touches us in the deepest place of our core and validates our personal emotional experience.” For this reason, people have a strong desire for great art. “We want to be closer to our own deep feelings,” Walfish says.
7. Our Love For Good Drama Goes Back To Aristotle’s Poetics
Watching shows that make us sad allows us to safely enter into and explore the most vulnerable and oftentimes most meaningful and profound side of ourselves, says Michael Alcee, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who works with adults and who also happens to watch “This is Us.” Good drama provides a “special key” for opening up the doors to ourselves.
“As far back as Aristotle’s poetics, there is the idea that drama provides a catharsis—a purging and purifying release—that allows us to recalibrate our emotions in the safety of the artistic medium and together as part of an audience,” he says. “Sharing in this journey together makes it even more powerful.” In short, shows like this fulfill the needs both to privately connect to our innermost selves and to then share that with others socially in a way that unites us with the rest of the world, says Alcee.
Do you love tearjerkers, too?