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Here's why it feels so good to watch those Hallmark holiday movies

They may be corny, but those Hallmark movies have become a staple of the holiday season. And getting sucked in may be good for your mental health.
Image: Hallmark Christmas movies
The Hallmark channel started playing their holiday movies in October this year — and added 24 new films to the lineup.Hallmark Channel; Adrian Lam / NBC News

The holidays seem to start earlier every year — and Hallmark's 2019 holiday movie calendar is no exception. This year, fans were able to start watching their tried-and-true favorites as early as October, along with the brand new movies added to the roster this year. And you can bet they'll all involve a C-list cast of characters falling in love in the most unconventional ways, single-handedly saving Christmas and remembering what the spirit of the season is really about — all in about a neat two-hour block.

Even the most die-hard Hallmark holiday movie fans will admit that the acting is over-the-top, the plotlines are unrealistic (as in someone's hiding the fact that they're royalty) and the endings are predictable (happily ever after, naturally).

So, why can't we seem to get enough (to the point where Hallmark is pumping out 24 new movies this year to feed the need)? According to Pamela Rutledge, behavioral scientist, director of the Media Psychology Research Center and Media Psychology faculty at Fielding Graduate University, the reliable Hallmark holiday movie plot formula takes us on an emotional journey that can be especially beneficial during the stress of the season — which keeps us coming back for more.

Why it feels good to watch Hallmark holiday movies

For starters, seeing familiar traditions and tropes played out on screen (and knowing it'll all turn out OK in the end) feels good mentally. "The human brain loves patterns and the predictability is cognitively rewarding," explains Rutledge. "Those predictable story arcs that draw on the standard patterns we recognize from fairytales offer comfort by presenting life as simple and moralistic." Which can serve as a much-needed break from the complexity of real-life holiday chaos.

As for the absence of cinematic wow factor that's become a "hallmark" of these movies (sorry, had to), there's a reason why we're so forgiving of it. "The lack of reality at all levels, from plot to production, signals that the movies are meant to be escapism entertainment," Rutledge explains. "The genre is well-defined, and our expectations follow. This enables us to suspend disbelief."

The movies provide simplistic solutions to all those stressors that the holidays can bring: family conflict, isolation or financial pressures.

What does that suspended disbelief do for us emotionally? "While few of us are going to switch places with a doppelgänger, save Christmas for ourselves or someone else, marry a prince/princess, fall for a person who turns out to be a billionaire or find true love in the span of an hour, [Hallmark movies] still allow us to experience the emotions associated with social validation, the yearning for connection, compassion and empathy," says Rutledge. "The movies provide simplistic solutions to all those stressors that the holidays can bring: family conflict, isolation or financial pressures."

The emotions we experience along with the protagonists trigger a powerful response — one that Rutledge says actually makes us feel more optimistic and resilient, which can help offset stress, depression and anxiety (which tend to be at an all time high during this time of year).

How to get the most out of your binge watch this year

  • Get in touch with your emotions. "Positive emotions such as hope, happiness, the value of connection, appreciation and gratitude are very powerful," says Rutledge. So don't be afraid to let yourself cry or laugh while watching, even though the plot may be silly or unrealistic.
  • Think about how the underlying message can apply to you. "Translating these stories into personal meaning can trigger a shift in behavior and highlight new goals," says Rutledge. "You might, for example, think about the ‘true meaning’ of the holidays and consider letting yourself off the hook if you try to do too much to make a 'perfect' holiday, connect with estranged family or distant friends, or take steps so you enjoy the holidays a little more."
  • Allow the stories to give you hope about possibilities. "[Hallmark movies] give us hope for things like love, ‘true happiness,’ overcoming obstacles, and compassion," says Rutledge. Recognize that these possibilities exist in your life, rather than focusing on the unlikelihood of specific plot points that led the protagonists there.
  • Recognize what you value most. A recurring theme of Hallmark movies is the return to what really matters for the main characters. As you're watching, Rutledge says to translate that back into your own life to remind yourself of the things you value, such as family or friends, to refocus yourself during the holidays.
  • Don't like it? Don't watch it. There's absolutely no benefit to forcing yourself to sit and watch Hallmark movies if all you can do is focus on the bad acting and plot holes. "If you find yourself reacting negatively, feel free to go do something else," says Rutledge. "If you feel compelled to point out how stupid or unrealistic it all is, leave the room and go make an eggnog."

Holiday Survival Guide

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