Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Psychology and Media - Fairy Tales and Fantasy for Artists - p16

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Psychology and Media

 by Ty Hulse

Above all else, art is about emotions, for the emotions in tales can provide real psychological benefit. Indeed, it can be argued that people seek out entertainment primarily to fulfill psychological needs, as well as to feel emotional pleasure. (Raney Et Al.) Studies have repeatedly found that people use entertainment as a way of regulating and intervening in their emotional states (Eden, Johnson, and Hartmann, 2018) and that doing so can have not only psychological and social benefits, but also benefits to productivity as well. Reinecke and Trepte (2008) found that “those suffering from low arousal [boredom] performed worse on cognitive tasks” than those who alleviated this boredom by playing videogames for a few minutes. Reinecke et al.’s later studies (2011) found that video games were generally very effective at satisfying our needs for mastery and control, where as other activities were better suited to calming down. 

 Just a few other findings include the fact that;

 “viewing cute images improved performance on tasks that required carefulness” (Nittono Et Al). Chen, Hu, and Plucker found that positive moods can help with certain types of creativity, while Miller and Benoit found that horror could help with others. Christensen and Scrivner point out that horror has been used by some as a way to deal with anxiety and that some individuals with PTSD have used horror to aid in their emotional recovery. 

 It should be obvious then that telling and hearing stories can have huge emotional and psychological benefits, in ways that sometimes don’t make obvious sense and have little or nothing to do with the morals, themes, text or subtext of a story. A fairytale or fantasy story may not have a subtextual or overt moral that we can find, rather its purpose could be entirely emotional.” (A Worldbuilder’s Guide to Understanding Fairies and Fairytales)

 The value of emotions in art and stories is why psychologists can use fantasy tales in therapy. According to Nielson (2007);

 the emotional release, possible due to a clear narrative, is mentally healthy but also connects to better physical health, as a result. The narrative is critical to releasing these emotions in an effective manner where one’s role in their trauma can be understood and therefore promote personal growth in oneself

Many of the stories mentioned for helping people in therapy include fairytales or fantasy stories. For example, Doctor Wolz states that therapists have used Lord of the Rings to help patients because “One of the themes that attracted my attention in the Lord of the Rings is that of personal evolution. Each one of the members of The Fellowship is simultaneously a participant in two quests: one which revolves around the destruction of the ring, and another which revolves around the confrontation of demons/fears that obstruct that character’s personal growth.”

Again Nielson points out that: 

The superhero concept is naturally very therapeutic in its storytelling and characters, due to their usual archetypical standards of simplicity in good vs. evil conflicts. This is partially why children have a strong reaction to superheroes in stories, therefore suggesting that they will be effective in cinema therapy.

Stories in which characters overcome obstacles after struggle and have emotional arcs can all be extremely beneficial and such struggles and arcs are often built into the world. Lawrence and Jewett (2002) have found that there is psychological value in fantasy worlds that aren’t ambiguous, that have clear cut evil empires, so that the good characters can easily defeat the problems of the world. This isn’t to say that there isn’t value in darker and more ambiguous worlds, but it is also worth pointing out that there has been found to be important psychological value in worlds where heroes can have “pure motivations, a redemptive task and extraordinary powers” (Lawrence and Jewett, 2002). 

Given the psychological value of stories one shouldn’t mistake engaging with stories for emotional reasons as a quest for blind happiness. Strizhakova and Kremar (2007) did a study of the types of movies people watched when feeling different emotions and found that;

In general, those who felt angry and bored chose fewer dramas; those who felt calm chose more comedies, and those who felt energetic chose more action movies but avoided crime dramas and comedies. Those who felt nervous, however, chose more–not fewer–horror movies. In addition, those who felt sad chose more–not fewer–dramas and crime dramas but avoided dramatic comedies. Rather, sad people seemed to gravitate to serious films.

In other words, people likely choose different stories at different times based on their mood and psychological needs. Thus each type of film and game offers something different to help people in different moods reach a more optimal state. After all, there are many ways which a story can fulfill someone’s psychological needs, but in general they have been broken into three categories: Hedonic, Eudaimonic and Transcendent. Not every one of these gratifications is necessary to making a show entertaining (and most stories likely don’t gratify people in most of the ways possible), but people who have a healthy mix of emotions from each category will tend to have a higher sense of well-being. (Raney Et al.) 


Hedonic Motivations involve seeking out pleasure and happiness. These emotions are usually found in fun and exciting stories. 


Eudaimonic motivations include seeking out a deeper meaning—feeling a sense of elevation and connectedness with the self and others. 

Eudaimonic entertainment commonly involves stories that address difficult aspects of the human condition, such as life struggles, death and suffering, and portrayals of human virtue such as kindness, helpfulness, love, and connection… Admittedly, eudaimonic films for example rarely generate the top box office revenues. However, they are more likely than hedonic fare to receive critical acclaim. (Raney et al.)


Transcendent gratifications come from entertainment that makes people gain outward focused insights as opposed to eudaimonic entertainments which are mostly inward focused. In other words, transcendent entertainment “takes the audience member beyond personal benefits to a greater understanding of their interconnectedness with others or with a higher nature. Increased appreciation for and understanding of shared humanity and values of moral beauty, hope, courage, and humility.” (Raney Et al.)



Every mammal plays games, or put another way, every mammal seeks to learn through fun and pleasure. This is what hedonic well-being is, pleasure, happiness, fun, carefreeness, relaxation, and enjoyment, and along with this a lack of emotional pain and stress. 

Entertainment, which allows people to work through and roleplay emotions in their mind can act as the ultimate sandbox for people to mentally explore experiences and feelings. People seek out entertainment for three types of escape; sociological – that is stresses related to work, social psychological – stresses related to negative social interactions with others and the world, and individual – that is to help improve individual mood and psychology. This use of entertainment to escape and increase well-being is of particular note to fantasy artists, given the value of digital games and fantasy for escaping. “Several studies have found that escapism and being immersed into a fantasy world to be relevant motivations of players. Especially complex games like online role-playing games are often used for escapism-related motivations like immersion/fantasy.” Games and fantasy “provide an optimal environment for pleasurable escape from the restrictions and difficulties of the real world.” )Video Games and Well-being Press Start 2019)


This might explain why the most successful MMORPG is ‘World of Warcraft’, an artistically somewhat cartoonish game with moments of tongue in cheek lore, because the whimsy of the art is able to contribute to the hedonic pleasure people feel when playing this game. In any case, researchers have found that sadness is often best relieved by playing video games. 


Of course, pleasure isn’t the only purpose of entertainment, after all horror, vast landscapes, and tragedies are all important works of art that people frequently seek out. Studies have found that films that cause people to feel moved “elicited more reflective thoughts, which in turn predicted individuals’ overall positive experience of the film” (Bartsch, Kalch, and Oliver).





Transcendent gratifications come from a feeling of spirituality induced by entertainment and art such as is found in the original ‘Star Wars’ films, ‘Avatar, The Last Airbender’, ‘Lord of the Rings’, and more. Transcendent art and media causes people to care and think about others and increases their feelings of a shared humanity, values, spirituality, moral beauty, courage, hope, humility, and feelings of awe and wonder, as well as feelings of connectedness with nature and higher powers.  Transcendence can have a positive impact on someone’s sense of well-being, while promoting authentic happiness. At the same time transcendence also causes people to care more about others, increasing their generosity and kindness. 

Psychologists have identified a number of forms of transcendence. Elevation, the feeling we get when we encounter moral beauty. Admiration that comes from witnessing an achievement or skill that inspires and energizes the viewer. Gratitude, that comes from witnessing not only good deeds, but also by witnessing a character who is willing to show gratitude. Thus, an audience is often more likely to feel positive emotions when a protagonist is helped and thankful rather than when they can accomplish everything on their own. Viewing gratitude is important because it increases altruism but also helps people feel greater levels of life satisfaction. 

Perhaps the most important aspect of transcendence for artists is awe. That is being made to feel small and insignificant because of amazement, wonder, the beauty of nature, or fear. Such feelings of awe and wonder can reduce aggressive behavior. Images of nature can help to induce awe, which perhaps helps to explain why scenes of nature were shown to improve psychological well being, increasing "feelings of affection, friendliness, playfulness, and elation."


The stress reducing effects of nature art can help improve patient outcomes in hospitals, among other things. “For example, adult patients in a procedure room reported better pain control when exposed to a nature scene. Murals (as distraction) resulted in a significant decrease in reported pain intensity, pain quality, and anxiety by burn patients. Breast cancer patients reported reduced anxiety, fatigue, and distress during chemotherapy when exposed to VR intervention displaying underwater scenes.”


During quite moments in a game people can feel a similar sense of transcendence as a result of the art and the emotions related to the games scene, as well as its music. 


The power of transcendence induced by beauty may very well be the biggest reason that the film “Avatar” had the biggest box office of all time. The use of such beauty to move people is obviously important to artists, just as the use of spiritualism to help people feel transcendence is important to fantasy and related stories. “Avatar: The Last Airbender”, “Star Wars”, “Lord of the Rings”, and many more have all used some form of spirituality to help make us feel a sense of transcendence. 


Such transcendence leads to feelings of appreciation which Oliver and Bartsch (2011) found “is most evident for meaningful portrayals that focus on human virtue and that inspire audiences to contemplate questions concerning life’s purpose.” Similarly, Janicke and Rambasubramanian found that “while personally chosen favorite movies can be enjoyable from pleasurable and hedonic aspects, these films also gain appreciation from rich spiritual content”. The belief in the spirituality being depicted isn’t necessarily important to a person’s feelings of transcendence; after all, it is likely that very few people believed in ‘the force’ exactly as it is depicted in ‘Star Wars’ yet the emotions elicited by it, as well as by moral and hopeful behavior with Star Wars films, helped people enjoy the films more. 


Eudemonic Well-Being

Eudaimonic entertainment creates emotions of appreciation, rather than pleasure, such entertainment addresses struggles, death, suffering, and sorrow. More than this, however, Eudaimonic entertainment shows us human virtues such as kindness, love, connection, helpfulness. These are the gratifications that lead more to appreciation of the 'artistic’ merit of a piece of art than enjoyment of it. Such potentially negative emotions are most effective when mixed with positive feelings that lead to feelings of bittersweetness and poignancy. 


The psychologist “Ryff distinguished between six different contours of well being: mastery (successfully mastering the challenges of life), autonomy (experiencing self-actualization and inner freedom), personal growth (developing and expanding as a person), self-acceptance (having a positive attitude toward oneself), positive interpersonal relationships (being able to love and build up intimacy), and life purpose (finding a goal and meaning in life).”


People will often turn to entertainment that makes them feel sad, especially when such sorrow provokes deeper thoughts on the meanings and deeper purposes of life. Stories such as the final moments of “Avengers End Game” when Iron Man sacrifices himself and the funeral which follows in the movie leave us feeling both sad and strangely warm. Such experiences in entertainment help us feel more connected to and caring towards others, as well as making us feel more cared for. In a strange way these sad moments can help impart a sense of control on us, helping us feel more free. 


We don’t enjoy these sad moments exactly, rather, we appreciate them. Such appreciation of stories comes from a perception of deeper meanings and of course feelings of being inspired. The stories that help us to feel this appreciation more often tend to show complex moralities and imperfect characters whose own values and morals can be very different from our own. Thus, the reason people can so strongly appreciate and even enjoy antihero narratives. The morally ambiguous antihero or even villain who acts as the protagonist in a show can help audiences experience things they otherwise wouldn’t and can allow them to explore deep and meaningful philosophical questions. 


People don’t necessarily identify with the ambiguous morals on display, nor do they come to an agreement with them. Rather, people frequently disengage from morals that are so far from their own. Instead people will tend to engage with the positive aspects of these characters; even if these are their intelligence, their willingness to get things done, etc., rather than moral aspects of their character. 


Meaningful entertainment can help motivate people to become better, even increasing their levels of spirituality and hope. Tragic films have even been show to lead to a reduction of anxiety and self-efficacy for as much as four weeks after.