Sandra Garrido – TRANSCRIPT
If you are an human being, chances are, one of your primary aims in life is to maximize your happiness. I did a quick search of Google books before I came here, I have found an astounding two and an half million books on the subject of happiness. When we are so interested in happiness, and we do everything that we can in daily life to avoid things that make us feel sad, why is it?
When it comes to music we actually seem to enjoy feeling sad. I will give you an example. (Music: piano introduction of “Someone Like You”, Adele) So that of course is a song that flew to the top of the charts within weeks of its release and it is known and loved by millions of people all around the world.
So why is it that songs like these are so popular? Why is it that we seem to enjoy feeling sad when we are listening to music? Well, that was the question that I set out to find the answer to, and along with my colleagues, we’ve interviewed probably thousands of people about why they are enjoying music like this.
We’ve also surveyed people and try to find out in-depth reasons about how people use music like this in their daily lives. And we’ve also done experiments where we’ve actually played sad music to people and then measure the effects on them. And what we actually found is that there is no single reason, there is no single answer to that question of why people like sad music. I’ll give you some examples of the kind of things that we’ve found out.
Firstly, some people have a really strong capacity for absorption, or the ability to get so immersed in what they’re doing that they completely lose track of time and the sense of where they are. These kind of people seem to be able to just really enjoy the emotional journey of the music, and they don’t experience any displeasure in the way that you would, if it was sadness triggered by real life events.
Another group of people are able to use the time listening to sad music to reflect on their own lives. I mean if you think about it, sadness is actually an adaptive emotion from an evolutionary perspective. It motivates us to think about our lives and think about things that might need changes and motivates us to make those changes. So people who have strong capacities to reflection, the very reflective people, they seem to have the ability to actually use the time when they are listening to sad music to process emotions that they might be going through and to think about how they can address the problems that might be triggering sadness in them.
Some of the additional psychological benefits they might get are catharsis or being able to just get rid of all those pent-up emotions that are building up, and sometimes people are able to get a really nice feeling from the music that they are not alone in what they are experiencing, a nice feeling that they are other people out there who understand how they feel.
So these are the types of psychological benefits that reflective people seem to be able to get from listening to sad music. But I said that sadness is an adaptive emotion and like all adaptive systems, things can go wrong. Mood disorders like depression are an example of how systems break down. By its really definition, depression involves an impaired capacity to regulate one’s own moods and emotions.
So for people with tendencies to depression, often negative emotions are more easily triggered in them, so it only takes a very small thing to make them feel bad, in comparison to other people, and then it is much more difficult for them often to break out of those bad feelings, that it might be for somebody else. And this is all related to a tendency called rumination, and rumination is that thing that happens sometimes where you get, your mind gets stuck in these cycles of negative thinking. It is largely involuntary, and this is something that happens to people who have a tendency to depression.
So what that often happens with these people is they start out with the same rational intentions as the reflective person. They think: “if I listen to this piece of music, it is going to help me get all those emotions off my chest or, really think through my problems.” But instead of helping them to work through their emotions and come out the other side, it can actually just perpetuate those cycles of negative thinking. This is what happens when we do experiments with people.
So, you can see the bottom line, these are the people who have high scores in rumination, and you can see that they start out the experiment with much lower mood levels than other people. So they are more depressed than other people at the beginning of the experiment. We then play them a piece of sad music, and their depression levels really increase, their mood level drop, and they are much more depressed.
For the people who are low ruminatists, that happens also, they get a little bit sad. But that is probably just a minor blip in their day and they recover from it quite quickly. But if you’re already at this clinical levels of major depression, and then you mood goes even lower as a result of a piece of music, that can really be quite a dangerous situation. Of course, ethically, we can’t do that to our participants, and then leave them feeling like that. So we always ask them to listen to a piece of a happy music, at the end of the experiment.