How Happy Music Makes You… Happy!

 In Get Involved, Inspiring stories

During the Sydney storms that battered our homes this week, a number of vicious thunderstorms had my poor little pooch, Noodle, trembling under my chair as I sat at my computer. No amount of pats, hugs or Schmacko’s can calm the shakes when the distant rumbles begin, so faint at first that no human can hear. As the sound looms closer and transforms into deafening cracks and booms, her eyes bulge so much that I sometimes worry they will burst out of her head.

Interestingly, there is only one sure thing that can bring her back down to normal, happy dog level: the sweet sounds of Bob Seger – lots of bass and strong, simple rhythms. Immediately, her intense anxiety dies down and she becomes responsive, settling in for a cuddle until the storms have passed. For most pups, classical music has been demonstrated time and time again to be calming during periods of high stress, but for Noodle, this upbeat Rock’n’Roll legend does just the trick.

Witnessing this reminded me of a period of my life a couple of years ago when I was halfway through a creative university degree that I was unhappy with. The journey to uni was far, it was winter and the weather was miserable, and I found myself disappointed in the work I was creating. On the bus to and from uni, I would religiously listen to an iPod playlist consisting of typically slow, sad music; with beautiful lyrics and melodies, but very sombre and nostalgic. It took me a long time to figure out that while I couldn’t change the weather or how far I had to travel each day, I could change what I was listening to, and maybe I could change my mood.

As a personal experiment, as hard as it was, I banned myself from listening to my usual tunes and created a new playlist, which I titled, “the yay playlist.” Upbeat, bouncy tunes were now the soundtrack to my bus rides and walks that winter, and I was astounded by how much of an effect something so simple had on my overall outlook on life. And it makes sense doesn’t it? There’s a reason why they pump fast-paced, beat-heavy dance tunes at the gym! Numerous studies, like this one performed by the University of Missouri, have demonstrated that just by listening to upbeat music, you can boost your mood.

However, it is interesting to note that the study shows that participants who listened to positive music with the intention of feeling happier, showed higher levels of happiness than participants who only listened to the music. Unknowingly in those dark, cold and wet winter months I had put this all into practice – by consciously deciding to be happier and to listen only to happy music, I was happier.

For those interested in participating in their own personal music vs. mood experiment, Yuna Fergusson – lead author of the paper – advises that persons should be wary of being too introspective into their mood, and constantly asking themselves, ““Am I happy yet?” Rather than focusing on how much happiness they’ve gained and engaging in that kind of mental calculation, people could focus more on enjoying their experience of the journey towards happiness and not get hung up on the destination,” she says.

Fergusson’s co-author, Kennon Sheldon, continues: “we can stay in the upper half of our ‘set range’ of potential happiness as long as we keep having positive experiences, and avoid wanting too much more than we have. Yuna’s research suggests that we can intentionally seek to make mental changes leading to new positive experiences of life. The fact that we’re aware we’re doing this, has no detrimental effect.”

In a better place now, I still listen to my favourite bands on the regular, and there are actually countless studies that explore the ways that listening to sad music can boost your mood also (that’s another story altogether); but whenever I need a pick-me-up I know “the yay playlist” is there for me, just like that “Old Time Rock and Roll” is there for Noodle.

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