By adulthood, most of us have developed a few solid go-to methods to cheer us up when we’re feeling blue. I like to take long, hot bubble baths and listen to sad country music. Some would wonder why – wouldn’t the country songs just depress me more? Wouldn’t I be better off eating a bunch of chocolate or taking a walk? Although it sounds counter-intuitive, science has shown that listening to these gloomy songs might actually put us in a more cheerful frame of mind. A behavior that, at first glance, looks like indulging in a self-destructive pity party, just might be more productive and uplifting than we would have guessed.
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A study by Japanese researchers published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that listening to sad music may actually improve your emotional state. Researchers found that while the sad music was, in fact, perceived as “tragic” by the participants, the experience of listening to sad music actually evoked positive emotions. Specifically, members of the study were found to feel “more romantic, more blithe, and less tragic” after listening to the depressing tunes.
There is a good reason for this. Sad songs can be therapeutic, in that they allow us to work through our own unpleasant feelings in a vicarious way. Through soulful, sorrowful music, we can examine our own unhappiness from a distance, feeling the sadness without having to face the things that we are sad about. This could explain the strange feeling of safety and warmth that depressing songs can elicit in our hearts. There is tragedy, yes – but it is different from the tragedy we are experiencing.
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Even people who don’t enjoy sad music can likely relate to this odd effect in other ways. There is a sort of pleasant sorrow that we feel when we cry at the end of The Notebook, or allow ourselves to get lost in a work of art like Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night. I think this special sort of melancholy is what the researchers were capturing in this study, and I think this is the sensation that keeps us listening to sad music. It keeps us thinking, and it keeps us human. Because music is so closely connected to our humanity, doesn’t it make sense that we would want one tune to dance with us, and one to hold us while we cry? Sad music is just that, and, in darker times, it is my favorite way to wallow.