The film industry is one of the biggest industries in our society. It is a booming business with one mission: to entertain. To some people, the fact that our need for fun is big enough to sustain a whole industry is troublesome. We like to think of humans as creatures who can be distinguished because of their ability to think, to philosophize, and to reflect on life. We are the homo sapiens – the human that is wise. A shared craving for shallow amusement does not seem to support this image of ourselves as highly sophisticated beings. Hence, people often ask: Why is entertainment important?
Initially, researchers explained that entertainment is a pleasurable experience, characterized by amusement. Entertainment was said to occur in response to funny, ‘light’ media content in particular. Researchers referred to this definition of entertainment using the term hedonic entertainment. However, when we think about this carefully, one obvious question arises: Why do so many sources of entertainment contain sad content? Take the movie Titanic – it is one of the most popular movies ever made, while its central narrative is a tragedy that cost more than 1500 lives. Why then, do we feel entertained by it? This is what researchers referred to as “The paradox of sad-film enjoyment”.
Researchers studying the paradox of sad-film enjoyment state that people can feel entertained by serious media content not because they find it funny, but because they appreciate it. This notion marks the distinction of a second type of entertainment called eudaimonic entertainment. To understand the concept of eudaimonic entertainment experiences, let’s have a look at another movie that became very popular soon after its release: La La Land. The movie introduces two main characters. One dreams of becoming an actress, while the other hopes to own a jazz club one day. The movie follows both characters as they are trying to achieve their goals and it shows the sacrifices they have to make along the way. Watching this movie can make people reflect on their own goals and on what they would be willing to sacrifice to achieve them. Viewers may ask themselves: What do I value in life and how does that make me feel about the choices made by the characters? Because the movie makes people gain new insights and realizations about this theme, they appreciate it. In other words, the movie elicits eudaimonic entertainment experiences.
Then, why is entertainment important? As the above illustrates, the fact that entertainment is so prominent in our daily lives does not mean that we are shallow creatures, merely searching for simple fun. We want to be entertained, not only because we want to have fun at the end of our busy days, but also because we like to reflect on serious themes. What we like for entertainment and why we like it says a lot about who we are. Finding things that entertain us is important, but it is equally important for us to understand how and why entertainment experiences arise. For one thing, studies on entertainment have shown that our search for relaxing fun goes hand in hand with a desire for content that makes us think. One reason we like to be entertained is that it can make us a little wiser than we were before.