The Power of Media to Inspire
Sherry Turkle, a well known MIT professor and Author of Alone Together and Reclaiming Conversation has repeatedly stressed the detrimental effects of technology for how we related to one another, with the easy and constant connectivity of our technologies providing us with a false sense of intimacy. She referred to a study conducted by Konrath, O’Brien and Hsing (2011) who analyzed 40 years of empathy data from American college students across 72 data sets and found a dramatic decline in self-reported levels of empathy, suggesting that current students claim to be less empathetic than their late 1970 counterparts.
One of the explanations for this finding given by the authors was the rise in technology, which, according to Turkle, provides us with a false sense of connectedness and changes our interpersonal dynamics which are important for the development of empathy. In fact, a study by Yalda Uhls found that kids who participated in a "no technology" camp for 5 days were significantly better in recognizing facial emotions and identifying emotions of actors in videos than a control group who did not go through the digital detox.
These findings are surely of concern. However, there is hope.
It turns out, media cannot only make us feel uplifted and happy in the moment, but also has the potential to inspire empathy, perspective taking, compassion, human virtues, and prosociality, and potentially also make us feel connected to the transcendent aspects of life.
Generally, entertainment researchers differentiate between media content that is pleasurable in nature, also called hedonic entertainment, which is content that makes us feel generally happy, uplifted and even excited. Examples are comedies like The Hangover or Spy; and meaningful content, also referred to as eudaimonic entertainment, which is media content that makes us think, we perceive as meaningful, and that often leaves us with a bittersweet kind of feeling. Examples include dramas such as Forrest Gump or The Pursuit of Happyness. If you ever had goosebumps from watching a movie or even an advertisement like the one below, that made you feel happy and sad and the same time, you experienced, what researchers call “elevation”.
Now, experiencing this “elevation,” research has shown, make us want to help others, be a better person and make us feel more connected towards other people. So, if you wanted to text or call your mum after watching this video, you just exercised your “empathy” muscle and experienced a positive media effect that is particularly associated with “eudaimonic” or meaningful content, but that does not generally result from watching “hedonic” media content, such as funny cat videos, as research has shown.
The concepts of hedonic and eudaimonic media entertainment experiences actually overlap greatly with the two forms of “well-being” or “happiness” positive psychologists have differentiated: Hedonic happiness, which is defined as feeling satisfied with life, experiencing many positive emotions (such as feeling happy, joyful, content) and few negative emotions; and eudaimonic happiness which is generally associated with living a meaningful life, feeling that one’s life has purpose and having positive relationships with others.
Now, what is really interesting is that research has shown that eudaimonic well-being compared to hedonic well-being is associated with greater life satisfaction, more meaning in life, positive affect and subjective well-being compared to hedonic well-being. Additionally, eduaimonic well-being compared to hedonic well-being has been associated with better health such as less reactivity to stress, less insulin resistance (which means less chance of developing diabetes), higher good cholesterol, better sleep, and brain activity patterns that have been linked to decreased levels of depression.
As if this would not be enough, positive psychologist Barbara Fredrickson and her colleagues found that eudaimonic well-being, but not hedonic well-being even decreased a specific genetic expression that is associated with chronic stress and is involved in a variety of human illnesses, including arthritis and heart disease, indicating that eudaimonic well-being is associated with better health even on a genetic level.
Fredrickson says that “while hedonic and eudaimonic well-being may generally foster well-being, on a physiological level hedonic well-being may just be “empty calories” that don’t help us broaden our awareness or build our capacity in ways that benefit us physically. At the cellular level, our bodies appear to respond better to a different kind of well-being, one based on a sense of connectedness and purpose."
Based on this knowledge, it seems that entertainment media that is meaningful and inspiring in nature is even more important for our overall well-being than we thought.
With the proliferation of eudaimonic media out there, such as positive news networks (for example the Good News Network, Greater Good Science Center Magazine, or Upworthy), inspiring ads, inspiring movies, and all the inspiring altruistic actions caught on camera that we find in our Facebook feed (e.g., a video of a man giving his shirt to a homeless man in the subway), I think the situation is not as hopeless as Turkle portrayed. Technology may have been played (and still is playing) a part in making us more disconnected but, when used in the “right” way, it may potentially contribute to our well-being in the short and long-term.
In fact, I argue that media can not only make us feel more connected towards others and inspire compassion (eudaimonic media), but that some media portrayals also makes us understand that we are all part of a larger whole, connected to something larger than ourselves, something that goes beyond this material nature.
The positive psychologist from the University of East London, Dr. Ilona Boniwell calls this particular forms of well-being people strive for “transcendence” and the researcher Dr. Paul Wong (2011) refers to it as “chaironic” well-being. Both conceptualizations include the idea that we may also derive well-being from striving for a life in which we feel connected to a universal power or transcendent nature. The figure below outlines how I see the relationship between eudaimonic well-being/eudaimonic media experiences and transcendent well-being/transcendent media experiences.
I think that, for example, a movie such as Avatar, may not only promote a greater awareness for the way we treat our environment and other beings (aka provide eudaimonic entertainment), but also create an awareness for how we are all connected to a higher universal power (aka transcendent entertainment).
Online videos that depict humanities better nature, such as people rescuing a dog out of a frozen lake, or a man giving his shirt of his back to a homeless man, may not only bring this virtuous tendency out in us to do similar acts of kindness, but may also expand our perception toward perceiving life as a force that extends beyond the material conditions we are bound to.
In one of my own studies, I already found that people who recalled a movie that portrayed kindness, love and connectedness said they did experience connectedness to a higher power after watching a film like that. My colleagues and I are currently looking at more data to empirically manifest this transcendent aspect of media in more detail.
Overall, I think media has a great potential to inspire us to become better people, re-invoke our compassionate instinct, as well as awake our dormant spiritual nature that understands that we are all part of a larger whole, and more than what our bodily experiences feed back to us on an everyday basis.
So, can entertaining media increase our well-being? Absolutely! Can media effect different forms of well-being? Research seems to suggest so. Whereas some media (funny cat videos), for example, seems to make us happy in the moment (hedonic entertainment), other media is more conducive to effect our perceptions of meaning in life and connectedness towards humanity and the transcendent (eudaimonic and transcendent media).
Whereas it can be good to get a good laugh out of a funny video or movie every once in a while, too much of these “empty calories” as Frederickson calls hedonic well-being, may not contribute to long term (eudaimonic) well-being that seems to even affects us on a physiological level.
Instead, media content that can contribute to aspects of eudaimonic or transcendent well-being, may be especially important for our technology obsessed and seemingly disconnected society.