Meaningfulness and Insight

Some big thoughts on this lil' Easter weekend.

I just wrote the following letter to a professor at Penn State, Mary Beth Oliver, who studies the psychological effects of media and the nature of our attraction to various forms of media content. She was an advisee of my mentor, Joe Cappella, back when he was a professor at the University of Wisconsin.

Backstory: Joe introduced me to Mary Beth at a cocktail party at the Annual Meeting of the National Communication Association in November 2002, in New Orleans. Mike was there with me.


Hi Mary Beth,

I just received the latest issue of JoC (Journal of Communication) and was excited to see your piece - a piece that is bound to expand the conceptualization of the various forms of media gratifications outside of the limited concepts of entertainment or enjoyment.


Oliver, M. B. (2008)
Tender Affective States as Predictors of Entertainment Preference, Journal of Communication


Four studies were conducted to explore how tender affective states (e.g., warmth, sympathy, understanding) predict attraction to entertainment that features poignant, dramatic, or tragic portrayals. … Results are discussed in terms of how these forms of entertainment may provide viewers the opportunity to contemplate the poignancies of human life—an activity that may reflect motivations of media use related to meaningfulness or insight rather than only the experience of pleasure.

It also brought me back to a conversation between you, my husband Michael, and me at the Annenberg reception at NCA 2002 in New Orleans. Joe Cappella had just introduced us to you and had told us a bit about your research interests. And then Joe headed off to chat with other folks. Well, the three of us (you, Mike, and me) had a brief conversation - no longer than 10 minutes in length, that has brought me much comfort over the last 2 years.

You were sharing that your most recent research was trying to understand why people seek out artistic representations of tragedy -- sad movies etc. What are the gratifications obtained through witnessing media portrayals of devastating events, illnesses and death? Well, my husband Mike, an artist, improvisational comedian, and graphic designer, had been polite and friendly for the previous hour of the "meet and greet other scholars" event, but I knew he was bored to tears - UNTIL this conversation with you.

I remember him being really passionate about the subject. He said, " To feel pain is a reminder that we are truly alive. Tragedy is the essence of the human condition. It makes us feel that we are part of something bigger than ourselves and bigger than this very moment."

As you may know, my husband Mike passed away in July 2006 after a grueling 8 month battle with a "benign" brain tumor. Five of those months were spent in the hospital. Over that period of time, during which he underwent 13 brain surgeries, he lost all short-term memory functions, his vision, any sense of meta-cognition, and his ability to care for himself.

Throughout that time, his exceedingly large circle of friends was constantly present. At each surgery, the waiting room contained no fewer than 15 of our friends... waiting, joking, crying, eating. Using my blog, I was able to tell everyone the username and password for a google calendar, so people could just go in and schedule their visits with Mike. That way he always had someone to help feed him dinner when I had to leave to pick up my son from daycare. People used the blog to post comments about their most recent visit with Mike, memories of him when he was well, and other reflections.

It was a period of 8 months during which many of us close to the situation survived on pure adrenaline. There was little sleep, little rest. Many tears, many deep hearty and dark laughs.

But I have never felt so alive as I did during those months.

Many of our friends still talk about it. I think that what Mike gave us during that time was the gift he was referencing in that conversation we had at NCA many years prior. His death and the slow process leading up to it gave us the opportunity to experience the essence of the human condition - and subsequently, to feel truly alive.

One of my newer research interests concerns emotional responses to conjugal bereavement (death of a spouse), particularly after a prolonged illness. My colleague, Scott caplan, and I examined user profiles on match.com of people who where young (under 40 years old) widows and widowers looking to repartner. Using content analysis rooted in the literature on bereavement and self-discovery, we coded profiles for expressions of meaning-finding, sense-making, and priority shift as function of their tragic experience. You would think this would be a depressing exercise, but the sentiments expressed in these profiles are inspiring. They reflect growth, appreciation for life, shifting in priorities, living in the moment, and a sort of spiritual awakening among the surviving spouses.

All of these outcomes are consistent with the concepts of "meaningfulness" or "insight" people obtain vicariously through sad or dramatic media content - as found in your recent work.

I wanted to share this because I think your research is tapping into something real - a hunger for opportunities to feel the "essence of the human condition." But without having to pay the price of actually losing someone or something.

Thanks for listening - and thank you for giving me that conversation in 2002 to which I often return.

It helps me find some peace in the whole situation to know that Mike understood the human thirst for purpose and meaning. It helps me feel like he would be proud of his role as a catalyst of self-discovery and insight among those closest to him.

Have a wonderful weekend. I look forward to your future work.


Sri Kalyanaraman said...


I haven't come across your blog before today. But, your letter to Mary Beth stirred a welter of emotions--running the gamut from a sense of sadness and deprivation to a sense of celebration and inspiration, and ulitmately a glorious ode to the fundamental resolution of the human soul. In addition to being very humbled, I am deeply moved--may your (and Mary Beth's) tribe increase.


Carrie said...


Another very insightful post. Thank you.

In my own research with journalists, who are struggling with a very difficult time right now in their industry(particularly newspapers), many fear that the pressure to produce "entertaining" content will take away from the (more expensive to produce) long-form narratives that explore in-depth some of the tragedies of the human experience. I think that they will be heartened to get this perspective on why what they do matters -- especially given the insistence by some folks for more "good news."

I realize that not all news stories reach the level of being able to provide meaning to the human condition, but ultimately, I think the majority of journalists chose their career because they believed that that is a fundamental part of the purpose of journalism.

Indeed, good journalism, I would agree, provides a forum for the public to come together to grieve and to come to an understanding of common problems, allows us to mourn collectively rather than individually, and, when relevant, reach collective solutions.

Well, I'm basically babbling now, I can't sustain any kind of articulate thought as well as you. Thanks for the post.


The Brain said...

Carrie - that is totally wild. I hadn't considered how these ideas translated into the world of journalism until this post of yours.

I talk to my students a lot about how news content driven by market research gives us lots of consumer and entertainment news and not a lot of info about world hunger and poverty.

Maybe because those notorious "news doctors" ask the wrong questions of readers: "what do you like to read about?" "Like?" Well, nobody likes to see pictures of starving children . No one likes reading about complex problems. But, even so, perhaps there is some meaning we derive from such stories. Some notion of a collective conscience. Some notion of that "something bigger than ourselves." Do we "enjoy" this kind of content? Probably not... but we certainly feel some enhanced sense of purpose, drive, and connection to our fellow man.

Thanks for expanding this conversation a bit. Can't wait to talk about this with my students!!!