What do five nights of burying your nose in The Help and 30 minutes of laughing at Sofía Vergara's antics on Modern Family have in common? They both offer a great escape—that's why it feels so indulgent to curl up with a hilarious story or one that keeps you on the edge of your seat. And the pros who create the movies and TV you love are counting on that. "As storytellers, we don't just want you to watch, we want you to feel it," says Nancy Meyers, writer and director of the Hollywood hits Something's Gotta Give and The Holiday. "Our hope is that you get lost in the story and in the characters' problems, so you're not thinking about what happened at work." And being transported to another time and place isn't the only benefit of great entertainment. A series of small but provocative studies show that stories can change the way you live and love.
Root for an onscreen underdog and feel hopeful for days.
Katniss versus the Capitol. Rocky versus Apollo Creed. It's no surprise that seeing the little guy (or gal) come out on top can make you feel good. Need proof? Just watch Working Girl again. But the boost of optimism you get isn't fleeting—it can linger as long as three days after you've watched the underdog triumph, according to research from the University of California, Santa Barbara. And that feeling made the study's participants more hopeful and more motivated toward pursuing their own goals compared to those who watched a nature show or comedy. Try The Pursuit of Happyness (used in the study), Seabiscuit, The Full Monty, or Jerry Maguire—or root for your favorite contestant on The Voice, where everybody's an underdog.
Kick back with a laugh-out-loud comedy to lower your stress.
Bridesmaids may have you on the floor laughing, but it also gives your body a heart-healthy jolt. People who laughed at clips from comedies like There's Something About Mary in a small University of Maryland Medical Center study experienced a decrease in stress—the kind that can set off a domino effect. The chain reaction begins when your brain releases endorphins, which cause the muscles lining your blood vessels to expand, making it easier for your heart to pump blood to the rest of your body. Lighten your day and tune up your ticker with one of Meyers's favorites, the 1960 Oscar winner The Apartment, or kick back with reliably funny girls in Pitch Perfect, Baby Mama, The Heat, or Miss Congeniality.
Turn on a tearjerker to feel closer to people you love.
Don't shy away from a drama because you're worried it'll be a downer on a Saturday night. Sure, you might shed some tears during Titanic or Terms of Endearment, but feeling heartbroken or even mourning a character's death can leave you seeing your life—and the people in it—in a better light. In an Ohio State University study, men and women who watched the tragic love story Atonement reported feeling more positive about their connections. Because of the way tragedies focus on close relationships and eternal love, people who watched them tended to think about their own relationships—and appreciate them, explains study author Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, Ph.D. Cry it out with a heart wrencher like Love Story or The Notebook, or head to theaters on June 6 for the movie version of John Green's bestselling novel of young love and loss, The Fault in Our Stars.
Read a novel to be a better friend.
"When you read, you don't realize that you're learning lessons," says Ann Hood, bestselling author of The Knitting Circle. "But the characters can teach you how to live." Both great works of literature and juicy romances can improve any relationship by building your empathy muscles—research shows these reads increase your ability to pick up on emotional cues and understand more deeply how others are feeling. It's the perfect excuse to become engrossed in one of Hood's recent favorites, Alice Hoffman's The Museum of Extraordinary Things, or in a new classic such as Water for Elephants, The Invention of Wings, or Life of Pi.
Watch TV for an energy boost.
If you're trying to motivate yourself to finish the day's household chores, plopping down in front of Sex and the City reruns may seem like the last thing you should do. But unwinding with characters you love could be just what you need to gear up. "Close relationships help you achieve your goals, and positive interactions with friends can be energizing," says researcher Jaye L. Derrick, Ph.D., of the University at Buffalo. Her study found that your connections to TV characters you enjoy seeing can also boost you. So catch up with your old friends on Friends, and never feel guilty for falling prey to a Law & Order: SVU marathon again.
This story originally appeared in the May/June 2014 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.