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Does listening to sad music actually make us happier?

Good news: our love for breakup ballads is not just rooted in feeling sorry for ourselves. Science says that along with giving us something to relate to, sad music can trick our brain into making us happier.  

The quick succession of album releases from artists who are notorious for putting us in our feelings are sure to have listeners pressing repeat and sliding down walls all winter long.

Summer Walker and Adele dropped long-awaited projects just two weeks apart from one another, and Khalid and Kehlani have both announced records coming in December – meaning hopeless romantics will have a healthy helping of tracks to carry us into the new year and well beyond.

But in all seriousness, humans have always been drawn towards dark melodies, lyrics about heartache and pain, and orchestral ballads that awaken some deep, immaterial part of our being just by listening. Studies have suggested that since the 1950s, music has actually gotten sadder.

There’s a real psychological meaning to all this. Surprisingly, listening to ‘sad music’ has been proven to have a positive impact on our overall mood and wellbeing – at least for some.

The psychology of music

You don’t have to be a scientist to know that music drastically alters our feelings and behaviours – have you ever been on the dancefloor when Yeah! by Usher and Lil Jon came on? Point made, but let’s talk science.

Music engages the regions of our brain responsible for dopamine, which affects emotional behaviour and mood. It influences what we can control (like laughing, singing, dancing, or crying) but also sets off other non-autonomous triggers inside our heads.

In a study of 700 people in Berlin, research identified four rewards that come with experiencing feelings of sadness from music: reward of imagination, emotional regulation, empathy, and a lack of ‘real life’ implications.

In terms of imagination, our favourite songs have the power to evoke nostalgia, which make us yearn for the distant past – even if there is pain associated with it.

Psychologists believe that because nostalgia-inducing memories are often related to pivotal or meaningful moments in life, they can remind us of times we endured – offering up hope and a sense of resilience for the future.

On top of this, tons of studies continue to link music experience with empathy – a process where we understand the feelings of another person. Those with a higher capacity for empathy are believed to enjoy sad music more, frequently describing it as aesthetically beautiful and calming.

And since Gen-Z has been called the most empathetic generation yet, it’s no wonder we have a strong affinity for ballads our older counterparts might consider somewhat depressing.

Hormones and harmonies, baby

When listening to Juice WRLD, Taylor Swift, Jorja Smith – whatever your flavour may be – a hormone called prolactin is released in the brain. Prolactin is a powerful chemical that works to reduce personal feelings of grief and sadness.

Since we aren’t experiencing these feelings first-hand and don’t require any real consoling, the music-induced release of prolactin delivers a ‘pleasurable mix of opiates’ with nothing to fix and therefore, it ends up leaving us happy.

This is how music therapists have succeeded in soothing patients clinically, by manipulating the subconscious neurochemical responses to music which act as natural antidepressants.

When listening to a story told through lyrics, individuals process their own negative emotions and experiences without directly facing the trauma – that’s the ‘lack of real-life implications’ mentioned above.

With these feel-good reward circuits activated, our brain naturally asks us for ‘more, please’ in similar ways to when we experience love and drugs. So don’t be weirded out if you can’t shut off your sadboy/girl/they playlist, your brain is probably craving it.

All things considered, not all people enjoy sad music. A 2016 study of close to 2,600 people found that, for up to 17 percent of respondents, sad tracks were described as too intense, painful, and even mentally or even physically straining.

It’s understandable. Sometimes warding off a dip in energy or mood is better achieved with a more upbeat genre. But for those of us who find solace in relating, reliving, or just chilling out to low-key tunes – don’t press pause.

If music can provide us with as much pleasure as exercise, sleep, and chocolate – it’s worth tuning in.