I’ve broken up with my ex. Why is listening to sad songs making me feel better?
Turn up the melancholic ballads and wallow in minor keys, listening to sad music can make you feel happier.
You’re far from alone. Surveys have shown that many of us like listening to sad music when we’re feeling down. In fact, the tendency is strongest in people who are clinically depressed. It seems paradoxical – surely we’d be better off listening to jolly music – but when we’re in a low mood, hearing a jingly track like Happy by Pharrell Williams can irritate us and accentuate our sense of isolation.
In contrast, listening to sad music can help us to feel like we’re not suffering alone. In research by the University of Limerick published in 2013, people talked about sad music being like a friend and triggering a sense of shared suffering (after all, as REM put it, Everybody Hurts). The participants also mentioned how sad music could trigger memories of loved ones, often making them feel better.
This year, a team at the University of Florida found that even clinically depressed people feel happier and calmer after listening to doleful ditties – which somewhat disproves the theory that depressed people listen to sad music in order to exaggerate or perpetuate their low mood.
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Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Deputy Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.