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A psychologist explains why your brain loves cheesy holiday movies

Good Question: Why do we enjoy holiday movies?
Good Question: Why do we enjoy holiday movies? 02:32

'Tis the season for friends, family and cheesy holiday movies

Whether you're a fan of the Christmas classics or prefer the dozens of streamable and made-for-TV specials, experts say there's a reason holiday-themed movies are so popular — even the most corny and predictable. In fact, this is part of what keeps us coming back, says Dr. Pamela Rutledge, a media psychologist and director of the Media Psychology Research Center.

"You would almost be disappointed if they weren't a little cheesy and predictable, because that's why you're there. You're there to have a feel-good movie," she says. "This lowers stress, and it reinforces feelings of hope and renewal and all of those things that Christmas is supposed to bring."

And while the city-girl-meets-hometown-guy plot line is often mocked for its clichéd overuse, Rutledge says the hint of romance in many of these film also speaks to our psychological need for social connection. 

"It gives you hope that we will all find love and family," she says.

Rutledge says we particularly crave the predictably found in these movies since we're still bearing the psychological effects of the COVID pandemic

"For two and a half years, everyone's antennae were up and hypersensitive to any kind of threat," she explains. "(And we know) once you give someone chronic stress, their brain doesn't just automatically go back. This hyper vigilance makes people anticipate threat rather than look for the good things."

Add in social unrest, an uncertain political climate and worrying current events, it's no wonder we're looking for ways to escape to something more light-hearted and magical.

"After every big trauma like that, people get very afraid and they're looking for ways to feel more comforted," Rutledge says. "Obviously Hallmark movies aren't going to solve world problems, but it's a place where you can go and your brain has the reassurance of being able to anticipate something and having that be the case."

Sometimes the corniest holiday movies are the best, Ben Hoogland, a licensed marriage and family therapist, told CBS News Minnesota. He enjoys watching different versions of "The Grinch" with his kids, for example.

"We just like to have movies that we have these happy memories of being together as a family and having the same experience watching the same movie," Hoagland said.

The holiday season itself can be stressful, making these movies an easy go-to for relaxation during a busy time of year.

"These movies can act as 'cinema therapy,' where you can relax (and) have a little stress relief," Allison Eden, associate professor of communications at Michigan State, recently told CBS News Detroit. "You don't have to work too hard to enjoy it. It's not like there's going to be a twist ending or a surprise to shock you to your core. They're just gentle, comfort, feel-good movies that can really help you this time of year particularly."

The most stressed you'll feel during most holiday movies? A silly, low-conflict misunderstanding between love interests that you know will be resolved by the end. 

"The brain responds to that whole journey with both the dopamine of reward of having it turnout like you wanted to, but also the oxytocin release when you're talking about feelings of warmth and connection and love. So sort of a win-win," Rutledge says.

If you think you can find the same win-win in other forms of media, it may be harder than you think. People often use social media as a ways to escape, for example, but it's not always the pick-me-up you may be looking for. 

"The trouble with social media is you really never know what you're going to come up against," Rutledge says. "You can find happy things, but you can also find things that trigger all of our different insecurities."

This story has been updated to correct Allison Eden's name.

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