Listen to sad songs, why can make people cheer up instead?

Adele’s new album 30 is finally out. Within a month, hundreds of millions of people had listened to her debut single Easy On Me online.

It’s a sad song, no doubt. But the idea that people like sad music is a bit counterintuitive. Because logically sadness is usually an emotion we try to avoid, people are supposed to find sad music depressing and therefore turn off. In fact, sad music can make us feel absorbed and even cheered up.

So why does listening to sad music feel so good?

Biological function
Let’s start with biological theory. Hormones like prolactin and oxytocin are released in our bodies to help us cope with frustration and pain when faced with loss in real life or when we experience the pain of others. With these hormones, we feel calm, comforted and supported. Feeling the pain Adele conveys, or remembering our own pain, can cause this change in our bodies.

While some studies have suggested that prolactin and oxytocin encourage people to listen to sad music, others have found that listening to sad music may not increase prolactin levels in the body. So the jury is still out on whether this theory is right or not.

Psychological effect
One of the key reasons we love sad songs is that they “touch” us deeply. The experience is sometimes called kama muta, a Sanskrit term that means “moved by love.” People who are moved by a song may shudder, get goose bumps, be overwhelmed with emotion, warm in heart and rejoice.

But why are we moved? According to American writer James Baldwin, “The thing that most pains me is also the thing that connects me to all who are alive (or have been alive).” Similarly, “moved” may be because we suddenly feel closer to others.

This may explain why the people most moved by sad music are those with high levels of empathy. In fact, after listening to 30, we might watch some “reaction videos” to get a sense of what other people are feeling. This allows us to share these emotional experiences with others. The feeling of sharing makes us more moved and brings comfort and a sense of belonging. In this case, Adele’s music plays a social role and becomes our friend. Sad music can feel like an imaginary companion, providing psychological support when we are feeling down.

Or, it could be that the song triggers memories of important moments in our lives. Adele’s songs have a strong nostalgic feel. We may enjoy old memories rather than sadness. In fact, only about 25 percent of people actually felt sad when they listened to sad music. What the rest of us feel is usually a related emotion, the most common being nostalgia. This nostalgia helps to strengthen our social connections and eliminate feelings of emptiness and anxiety.

An entirely different psychological theory is that Adele’s songs act as “emotional exercise rooms”, providing us with a safe, controlled space in which to experience and explore feelings of sadness. It’s like neo and Morpheus in the studio in the Matrix movie. The Mood gym allows us to experience sad emotions and learn from them. When we listen to music, we develop more empathy, learn to see things better from the other person’s point of view, and experience a variety of responses to grief. This may allow us to be better prepared before the real damage strikes. To encourage this rewarding learning experience, the experience may have evolved into something enjoyable.

Understanding “Sadness”
Or, if Adele’s songs were just sad or nostalgic, that would be unpleasant indeed. And these songs may be pleasant simply because they are beautiful, while sadness just happens to accompany those beautiful melodies. In fact, some people believe that seeing beautiful acts or things can stir up warm, uplifting feelings that can move and motivate people.

We can also think culturally that Adele brings us satisfaction because she helps us find meaning. In her songs, she tells us about her growth through life’s changes and how to make sense of life’s difficulties. This is what much tragic art achieves. It accepts and gives meaning to the pain and suffering and sorrow of the world.

All in all, sad songs may mean different things to each of us. We listen to sad music when we want to remember something, feel a sense of belonging, or relax. We find comfort in listening to beauty and remembering the past. For fans, Adele tells us: You’re not alone in your pain. We feel her pain in song, share our own struggles, connect with and resonate with others’ grief, past and present. In human nature, the shared experience is always good.

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