Alliance/Shutterstock
Source: Alliance/Shutterstock

In its first week of release in the U.S., Adele's latest album, 25, sold more than 3 million copies. An Adele song, as most of you undoubtedly know, can be a real tearjerker. So then what is the appeal of her music? Few people, if any, would choose depression over joy. Then why is that sad music is so popular?

Functionalist approaches to emotion argue that people will generally prefer positive moods, but will seek out negative mood states to the extent to which they think the emotions might be useful in achieving a goal. For instance, while people generally want to be calm more than they want to be angry, studies show that people will choose to watch an anger-inducing video—and more frequently than a calmness-inducing video—if they think that anger will help them in an argument later in the study.

This suggests that people might listen to sad music when they believe that doing so will help them achieve a desired outcome. But what are the desired outcomes that sad music might help with?

Music psychology research provides many answers:

  • People may turn to sad music listening when they are experiencing distressing life events. When we feel blue, we turn to the blues.
  • Sad music listening also occurs because it is often perceived of as more aesthetically beautiful than happy music. 
  • Sad music listening can also be used as a form of social comparison, in that people compare themselves to the person in the song and come to an awareness that their own circumstances are not so bad (relative to the story being told in the song).

Recent research by Annemieke van den Tol, a lecturer in psychology at De Montfort University and colleagues (including this stunning man) recently tested if people think that sad music is better for acceptance coping than happy music, and in turn, if people are more likely to listen to sad music when seeking solace. That is, when people are going through dark times, do they seek out songs that are happy or songs that are sad as a means of coming to terms with what they are feeling?

This study found that people generally have a strong preference for happy music over sad music, but that this preference flips during, or when people are seeking solace from, a difficult life situation. Further, people report that sad music listening is associated with increased acceptance, a state in which people feel like they can come to terms with a problem and its associated negative emotions, and move on.

According to this research, people also report that re-experiencing emotions is a key means by which listening to sad music can lead to acceptance coping. That is, in contrast to denial of these emotions, or emotional suppression, listening to sad music allows people to feel these emotions—while they "share" them with the musician—and, in turn, reflect on their situation and ultimately come to a greater acceptance of it.

Of course, it is unlikely that listening to sad music all the time would lead to positive mental-health outcomes. And doing things that make you feel good are essential to mental health. But this work does reveal that allowing oneself to experience negative emotions (in this case, shared negative emotions) can help people cope with difficult life situations and emotions, and ultimately accept them. And without acceptance, life would be an (at least occasional) sea of regret, bitterness, and anger.

There is a place for sadness, and indeed all negative emotions, in a meaningful, happy life.

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