“Twinkle All The Way.” “Jingle Bell Bride.” “Merry Kissmass.” “The Christmas Prince.”
Year after year, networks like Hallmark and Lifetime ― and now even streaming services like Netflix ― inundate us with a slew of terribly cheesy holiday movies (with inane titles to match). And year after year, we eat it all up.
Whether you proudly tweet about your Hallmark movie consumption or hide the guilty pleasure, the fact remains that these over-the-top, formulaic, questionably acted films have a real audience.
But why are so many of us drawn to these cheesy made-for-TV holiday movies? HuffPost asked some mental health experts to break down our not-so-secret love affair.
They offer a sense of certainty.
Made-for-TV holiday movies are famous for following the same predictable formula, from the plot structure to the set decoration to the specific holiday motifs. And as much as we mock this approach, our brains actually tend to love the certainty, particularly in times of uncertainty like the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The human brain loves patterns and predictability, especially when we are stressed out,” said Kati Morton, a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of “Are U Ok? A Guide to Caring for Your Mental Health.”
“Knowing what to expect can be relaxing because it shows life in a much simpler way without all of the unknowns and complexities of regular life,” she added. “We can find ourselves seeking out these predictable films as a way to comfort ourselves and escape from this difficult time.”
We’re attracted to simple solutions.
Morton believes that people may be watching these kinds of movies even more this year because they present simple fixes to very complex issues like finding a partner, navigating relationship conflicts, dealing with childhood trauma, grieving a loved one, reuniting family and more.
“And it’s all figured out in an hour and a half!” she said. “We can be attracted to the easy solutions because our day-to-day life can seem to have more questions than answers.”
The relentless positivity boosts morale.
“People tend to watch cheesy Hallmark movies around the holidays because it’s positive, even though predictable,” said licensed marriage and family therapist Saniyyah Mayo. “People enjoy having positive things to think about. Positive movies can increase one’s morale during hard times. Holidays are great for some but depressing for many. Statistics have shown that depression spikes during the holidays. Although the movie may not be that great, it provides a temporary glimpse of optimism for some.”
There’s a chemical nature to the experience of watching cheesy movies, maybe even more so those with a holiday theme. Feel-good movies alter our hormone levels, and research has suggested that a rom-coms in particular can activate the brain’s empathy center to release dopamine and oxytocin.
“The holidays are stressful, especially this year, and being able to tap into a world where everything seems to work out, people fall in love, and the good guy wins is a retreat,” Morton said. “We can seek them out as a way to calm our nervous system and get that extra dopamine hit from the feel-good plots.”
They provide an escape to fulfill certain needs.
“The uses and gratifications model proposes that people watch media to fulfill certain needs,” explained T. Makana Chock, a media psychologist and communications professor at Syracuse University. “These include affective needs — the emotional fulfillment and pleasure we may experience in watching a romantic plot or vicariously experiencing the emotional journal of a likable character ― and diversion ― the need to temporarily escape the tensions and stress of our lives.”
““The holidays are stressful, especially this year, and being able to tap into a world where everything seems to work out, people fall in love, and the good guy wins is a retreat.””
– Kati Morton, licensed marriage and family therapist
“The imagery, acting, and music can help stimulate stress releases, primarily through laughter and sadness,” Kanti said. “Watching Hallmark movies, yes, can serve as the release you may need temporarily to promote those ‘happy hormones.’”
Our brains love happy endings.
“Our brains love feeling good. Formulaic styles and structure are typical in romantic comedies, helping us feel close to home in our own human stories,” Kanti said. “We’re wired to recognize specific common patterns that are relatable in storytelling. Endings can be incredibly impactful because they can remind us of the importance of solving solutions and the benefits of doing so in simple ways.”
Made-for-TV holiday movies tend to showcase journeys of self-discovery, happy endings and even miracles at times.
“Today we live in a time where many don’t believe or operate with a ‘happy endings’ mindset,” Kanti noted. “The lesson for ourselves is to narrate our own story of courage and resilience. This is a time to reflect and confirm that a happy ending is what you ultimately decide, drive and design through your own lens.”
They appeal to our moral intuitions.
“Holiday movies, which usually involve a character initially rejecting the holiday spirit (Bah, humbug) to becoming a firm believer in these values (love, family, giving), may also appeal to people’s moral intuitions,” Chock said. “Some scholars argue that humans have evolutionary-based moral sensitivities that have enabled us to survive in groups. Holiday movies may appeal to caring, or our sensitivity to others’ pain and suffering, and fairness — a desire to see justice done and have an equitable outcome for the characters.”
She noted that these movies often involve a central character who is an outsider (like a high-powered, city-dwelling, corporate worker who left her small town years ago) eventually becoming part of a group (either joining a family, getting involved with her small-town community, and/or partnering up with a love interest).
“The predictable plotlines and happy endings can provide us with a form of media ‘comfort food,’” Chock said.
They keep us dreaming.
“Hallmark movies capture the joys of holiday traditions ― that December feeling of an open fire, the scent of a fresh Christmas tree, and the heartfelt gift of giving,” Kanti mused. “Along with that, many Americans will binge the Hallmark Channel this time of year to be part of the positivity, festivity and idealism cast in the fairy tales portrayed on camera.”
Even if we know the plots are unrealistic (and mock them accordingly), the movies still tap into the part of us that dares to dream and use our imaginations.
“Watching ‘Crown for Christmas,’ we live the journey of a maid who becomes a governess to a princess and falls in love with the king,” Kanti explained. “This glimpse into the ‘greater thing,’ an ‘unknown to a known’ and a ‘first of something,’ keeps us dreaming remarkably. Bottom line, these simple pleasures make us feel good.”
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