Music, Mental Health and Me #3: Maxim - How sad songs showed me the value of wholeness over happiness
I wrote an article for my blog a few years ago expressing my confusion as to why people seem to love sad songs so much. Music is such an emotive medium, so when we listen to a heartbroken ballad or an angsty punk song, it’s difficult to not ‘catch’ the feelings that are being conveyed.
So on this basis, this must mean that sad songs tend to make us sad, while happy songs make us happy, right?
But if this is the case, then surely we should only listen to happy songs. I mean, if we have the choice between feeling sad or happy, we should choose the latter, shouldn’t we? This is a line of reasoning I’ve always tended to follow, and as a result I've tried to limit the music on my playlists to generally uplifting and happy songs, and I’ve done my best to avoid sad songs altogether.
It’s logical, isn’t it? I like to think of songs as mini-mantras, because we’ll listen to a song we love on repeat, and if we have the same message and melody filtering through our headphones, it’s bound to leave a fairly strong impression on us. For example, listening to Pharrell sing ‘I’m happy!’ over and over again doesn’t seem all that different to listening to a motivational mantra or affirmation, which would involve someone affirming ‘I’m confident, I’m strong,…’ and so on repeatedly.
Whether it’s a conscious or unconscious process, I think we definitely absorb and internalise a tremendous amount of the media we’re exposed to, particularly when the exposure is repeated - such as the aforementioned example of replaying the same song a number of times. It’s like how if you constantly watched TV shows and listened to music that glorifies drug use, then it’d be pretty hard for this not to have some kind of impact on the way you think about drugs.
In the same way, I figured that if I constantly listened to songs about feeling happy, then it could somehow trick my brain and get it into the habit of constantly feeling happy as well.
Wow! I’d done it. I’d cracked the code of life. This technique would get me to that elusive, godly state of full-time happiness, with no room for sadness.
Of course, my magical, sadness-defying method is completely flawed, and I soon found that out. While the intention is kind of sweet (or hopelessly naive, depending on how generous you want to be…), it doesn’t work in practice.
In reality, when we’re feeling down, the last thing we need is Pharrell singing gleefully about how his happiness makes him feel like a room without a roof (an analogy that never really made sense anyway). Personally, when I’m in a bit of a rut, my instinct is to put on some Country ballads and get lost in the movingly tragic storytelling.
But my previous, sadness-busting self would always pipe up, asking ‘But does listening to sad music make us feel any less sad?’ Well, queueing Zac Brown Band’s heartbreaking ode to family troubles, ‘Highway 20 Ride’, on my playlist certainly isn’t going to raise anyone’s spirits. 'Well, why listen to it then? Isn’t that compounding your negative feelings?’
At first, I was a bit confused as to why I, like most others, have this impulse to listen to music that represents our current mood, rather than our desired mood. Music is so powerful at affecting our emotions that we know playing a cheerful, bubblegum pop song could well lift our spirits a little. So why do we instead opt for downcast and downbeat songs?
I think, for me, part of it is the empathetic element. Listening to someone sing about being stressed if you’re also feeling stressed gives you a sense that you’re not alone in having those feelings, and it also normalises them, which is hugely positive.
But equally as important is the well-documented catharsis that listening to a sad song can bring us. I think it’s healthy to express the range of emotions we feel, and to not suppress some of them by constantly trying to only feel only one emotion: happiness.
In today’s world, we’ve become obsessed with striving for happiness. In many ways this is, of course, brilliant, and many renowned gurus and thinkers over the centuries have emphasised that the meaning of life is to find happiness. So isn’t it good that we’re finally listening to them?
However, this obsession can sometimes be unhelpful, such as when, as in my earlier example, we try and gloss over our negative feelings. This is because it can seem like we’re ‘failing’ in this life quest to achieve happiness if we feel anything less than happy 24/7.
There’s an idea growing in popularity, that instead of being so fixated on happiness, we should be aiming for wholeness. Trying to be happy all the time is simply impossible, and even if it was possible, I’m not even sure it would be all it’s cracked up to be. Often, the only reason we can truly appreciate those moments of true joy and elation is because we’ve been through the more difficult moments, because these give our happier times even more meaning.
If there was only happiness in the world, would it really be happiness? After a while, would we not become accustomed to it, and would it not then become neutral, because we’d have no reference point or anything to contrast it with?
If we set our sights on wholeness instead, then we can start to embrace all those other emotions that we usually reduce to obstacles or temporary stepping stones to happiness. When we feel sad, stressed, confused, or worried, we can express these feelings and accept them, without thinking we need to reject them or fight them. These emotions are unpleasant enough as it is, without layering on top of them a sense of guilt and shame for not feeling happy.
This is my long-winded answer to myself as to why we choose to listen to sad songs. The emotional force of music means we can use it to help us express the range of emotions we have inside us. It’s okay to feel sad, or angry, or anxious - I think it can be helpful to see these not as hindrances on the road to happiness, but as having value in themselves. If we’re feeling a little sad, a heartbreaking ballad can help us to express this sadness. It’s been proven that crying is healthy for us, because the tears carry away stress hormones, and we know first-hand that after watching a tear-jerking movie or listening to a song that causes you to well-up, you feel kind of refreshed.
So yes, of course it’s awesome to feel happiness and joy and elation and bliss - the moments when we feel these emotions are often the best moments in our lives. But perhaps we shouldn’t be so blinkered in striving for this feeling all the time, and instead look to achieve a state of wholeness, where we accept and allow all our emotions to flourish.
As far as my playlists go, they’re certainly now a lot more emotionally eclectic and kaleidoscopic than they used to be. Because, although it’s taken me a while, I’ve realised the beauty of life isn’t just found in the happy moments. It’s also in the moments when we felt anxious and someone was there to reassure us, when we felt frustrated because we cared so deeply about a project or a person, or when we got lost in order to find ourselves again.
It’s okay to listen to sad songs, because it’s okay to feel sad. Every time we feel anything it’s another reminder that we’re alive and breathing, and - just like each of our fleeting feelings - this isn’t going to last forever. So why not go out there and feel and experience as much as we can, both positive and negative, because when we’re feeling, we’re alive. And personally, I think there’s no better feeling, than feeling alive.
I know I have an annoying tendency to finish my articles on pretentious quotes, but I think this (particularly long) one is really important. It’s from the author Hugh Mackay, and it epitomises what I’ve been trying to say in this article: