Positive Media Psychology - What is it?

  • 7 December 2015
  • sjanicke

Following Murphy’s law—anything that can go wrong, will go wrong—for a long time the study of psychology, as well as media effects, mostly focused on human suffering and the negative effects of media, disregarding the positive. With the birth of positive psychology over 30 years ago, human flourishing became a research focus and media psychologists started to see the other side of the coin as well.


The scholarship of positive media psychology integrates the study of positive psychology, media psychology and media effects to answer the question: What role does media play in human flourishing?

I call myself a positive media psychologist because I study media’s role in human happiness. I apply theories from positive psychology to the context of media. I think that we cannot understand human happiness in the world we live in now without regarding media and the technologies we interact with on a constant basis. Now, there is no division of positive media psychology, nor is there a journal specifically devoted to this kind of work (even though our work does find a home in journals related to media psychology). However, I think it is important to brand the term Positive Media Psychology and demand such a discipline to foster scholastic progress in this field.

About 20 years ago, some forward thinking communication scholars arrived at a dead end when explaining entertainment experiences that seemed to be more than merely joyful (i.e., Vorderer, 2001, Oliver, 1993, Oliver et al., 2011, 2012, 2015; Wirth et al., 2012). We all understand that media makes us laugh and we often seek it out to feel entertained, escape our distressing environment, and manage potential dysphoric mood, or alleviate boredom. In fact, comedy and action are still amongst the most consumed media formats out there (Oliver et al., 2014).

However, media can also create more complex feelings such as laughter and sadness at the same time, elevation, compassion or even lead to self-reflection, reflection about life’s purpose, altruistic behavior and connectedness towards humanity (see media examples below: Bartlett & DeSteno, 2006; Cox, 2010; Oliver et al., 2012; Freeman et al., 2009; Janicke & Oliver, 2015; Lai et al., 2013; Schnall et al., 2010; Tamborini et al., 2011). And, while comedy and action movies are among the most consumed, movies with the strongest critical acclaim (i.e., nominated for Oscar or Golden Globe Award, movie critics ratings from Rotton Tomatoes, IMDB user ratings) is the content that is most valued by audiences, and this content includes somber and even dark content that is contemplative and can be considered meaningful (i.e., Seven, Unforgiven, The Verdict, Forrest Gump, Oliver et al., 2014).  Researchers summarized these forms of more contemplative entertainment experiences under the eudaimonic theories of media, following Aristotle’s understanding of happiness which results from meaningful endeavors that include enhancing the welfare of others and humankind enlarge.

Right now, the research on inspiring media effects on prosocial behavior, well-being, character development and the role new communication technologies play in the “good life” is just at the beginning: The beginning of a discipline that I think can have an enormous impact on finding solutions for many of the deep problems our society is facing today, including empathy deficiency, loneliness, aggression, and materialism.  What role does media play in personal and humanities’ well-being? Positive Media Psychology is here to find out.

Inspiring video examples:



Cox, K. S. (2010). Elevation predicts domain-specific volunteerism 3 months later. Journal of Positive Psychology, 5, 333-341.

Bartlett, M.Y., & DeSteno, D. (2006). Gratitude and prosocial behavior: Helping when it costs you. Psychological Science, 17, 319-325.

Freeman, D., Aquino, K., & McFerran, B. (2009). Overcoming beneficiary race as an impediment to charitable donation: Socialdominance orientation, the experience of moral elevation, and donation behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 72-84.

Janicke, S.H., & Oliver, M.B. (in press). The relationship between elevation, connectedness and compassionate love in meaningful films.  Psychology of Popular Media Culture.

Lai, C. K., Haidt, J., & Nosek, B., A. (2013). Moral Elevation Reduces Prejudice Against Gay Men. Social Science Research Network. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2276195

Oliver, M.B. (1993). Exploring the paradox of enjoyment of sad films. Human Communication Research, 19(3) 315-342. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-2958.1993.tb00304.x/abstract

Oliver, M.B., Ash, E., Woolley, J.K., Shade, D. D., Kim, K. (2014). Entertainment We Watch and Entertainment We Appreciate: Patterns of Motion Picture Consumption and Acclaim Over Three Decades. Mass Communication and Society, 17, 853-873.

Oliver, M.B., Ash, E., Kim, K., Wolley, J.K., Hoewe, J., Shade, D.D., Chung, M. (2015). Media-induced elevation as a means of enhancing feelings of intergroup connectedness. Journal of Social Issues, 71(1), 106-122.

Oliver, M. B. & Bartsch, A. (2011). Appreciation of entertainment. The importance of meaningfulness via virtue and wisdom. Journal of Media Psychology: Theories, Methods, and Applications, 23, 29-33.

Oliver, M. B., Hartmann, T., & Woolley, J.K. (2012). Elevation in response to entertainment portrayals of moral virtue. Human Communication Research, 38, 360-378.

Oliver, M. B., & Raney, A. A. (2011). Entertainment as pleasurable and meaningful: Identifying hedonic and eudaimonic motivations for entertainment consumption. Journal of Communication, 61, 984-1004.

Prestin, A. (2013). The pursuit of hopefulness: Operationalizing hope in entertainment media narratives. Media Psychology, 16, 318-346.

Schnall, S., Roper, J., & Fessler, D. M. T. (2010). Elevation leads to altruistic behavior. Psychological Science, 21, 315-320.

Tamborini, R., Grizzard, M., David Bowman, N., Reinecke, L., Lewis, R. J., & Eden, A. (2011). Media Enjoyment as need satisfaction: The contribution of hedonic and nonhedonic needs. Journal of Communication, 61, 1025-1042.

Vorderer, P. It’s all entertainment—sure. But what exactly is entertainment? Communication research, media psychology, and the explanation of entertainment experiences. Poetics, 29, 247-261.

Vorderer, P. (2015). Communication and the Good Life: Why and how our discipline should make a difference. Journal of Communication.  doi: 10.1111/jcom.12194

Wirth, W., Hofer, M., & Schramm, H. (2012). Beyond pleasure: Exploring the eudaimonic entertainment experience. Human Communication Research, 38, 406-428.

For access to any of these articles just contact me sophie.janicke@gmail.com