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Why Listening to Sad Music Might Actually Make You Feel Better

I know when I’m feeling sad, all I want to do is get comfy in my bed, crank up some Pheobe Bridgers or Frank Ocean, and simply wallow.  But why does doubling down on the sadness with depressing tunes help drag us out of the mire?   Many philosophers and psychologists contest that listening to sad music when you’re feeling down may actually make you feel better: and here’s why.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle coined the term catharsis as an explanation to the way human-beings amplify their emotions so much that they boil over and can release from the body.  A way that helps me understand this theory is thinking of a boiling pot of water.  When you place a full pot of water on a hot stovetop, the heat causes the molecules to expand and the water to start bubbling.  This eventually causes some of the water to boil over and leave the pot, similar to how amplifying our sadness can cause it to boil over and leave our body.  When we feel a deep connection to the sad music we are listening to, our own emotions intensify, and our bodies allow some of the dismal feelings to leave the body.

In terms of social psychology, one way to explain our desire to listen to sad music is through a process commonly known as downward social comparison.  This allows us to feel better about our own situation by focusing on someone else’s pain through music.  Causing our brain to have thoughts such as everything is going to be okay because Harry Styles is having an even worse day than I am.

Some psychologists also believe that melancholy music is linked to a hormone called prolactin that helps us cope with grief.  The body essentially prepares itself to experience trauma and then is left with a pleasurable mix of opiates that makes us feel at ease.  We also now know that music is linked to dopamine release in the brain, a neurotransmitter associated with food, sex, and drugs.  Though dopamine is also released when we listen to happy tunes, studies have found that sadness is handled differently in our minds when we experience it through art: think a weepy movie, a poignant song, or a tragic painting.  

Although listening to sad music when feeling down is not an effective way to feel better for all people, it may be the pick-me-up you need to release your emotions and enhance your mood.  No matter what has you down in the dumps, always remember that your emotions are valid, you are not your mistakes, and each day is a new opportunity to get out there and do good!

Megan Swezey

Stonehill '24

Meg is currently a sophmore at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts. Aside from writing, she has equal obsessions with dancing, hiking, sushi, jean jackets, Spotify playlists, and her two cute pups. Peace out!
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