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Why Listening to Sad Music Heals Your Broken Heart

New research explains the seeming paradox of sad music's effect on heartache.

Key points

  • Listening to sad music can relieve a broken heart.
  • It can pull you away from preoccupation with your sadness.
  • Embracing the reality of your experience points the way towards healing actions.

A broken heart. A sad ending to a love affair. That’s something most of us have experienced, or probably will. After all, it’s part of human life; needed, at least one time, to become more fully adult. But no question, the experience can be devastating, crushing. You might find yourself listening more to sad music, sad songs. It can resonate with your feelings of despair, that you’ll never heal from your broken heart. Or worse, that you’ve sunk into a pervasive sense of hopelessness about life itself.

You might feel a lament, as in Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” or the pained anguish of a lyric from Bob Dylan’s “Love Sick”: “I’m sick of love, I wish I’d never met you.”

But research shows there are pathways through the heartache. Listening to sad music is a major one. It can help you begin to feel joy and hopefulness about your life again. It can activate empathy and the desire to connect with others—both avenues through the prison of heartache and despair.

That may sound paradoxical, I know. Especially if you listen to melancholy music, like Marianelli’s “Farewell,” or to popular songs—and there are plenty of them, across decades and generations: Billie Eilish’s “When The Party’s Over” in our present era; R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts,” from the ‘90s; most any song from Sinatra’s classic album of sadness and lost love, In The Wee Small Hours. The examples are endless.

New research finds that sad music can help heal and uplift you from your broken heart. Or, from any negative, despairing life situation. For example, a recent study from Germany found the emotional impact of listening to sad music is an arousal of feelings of empathy, compassion, and a desire for positive connection with others. That, itself, is psychologically healing. It draws you away from preoccupation with yourself, and possibly towards helping others in need of comfort. Another experiment, from the University of Kent, found that when people were experiencing sadness, listening to music that was “beautiful but sad” enhanced their mood. In fact, it did so when the person first consciously embraced their awareness of the situation causing their sadness, and then began listening to the sad music. That is, when they intended that the sad music might help, they found that it did. But that wasn’t true if they just listened to sad music without first thinking about the sad situation.

These findings link with other studies that show embracing your sad situation emotionally—accepting reality as it is—stirs healing and growth beyond it. In short, acknowledging your full experience arouses hope—another seeming paradox. For example, research from Cornell University, described here and published in Psychological Science, found that embracing discomfort about a life experience or new situation, and viewing it as a step towards growth and change, generates motivation to find a pathway through it, beyond it. As Churchill famously said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” That discomfort points you towards creating a plan, a new action. It fuels hope.

Similarly, a study from Ohio State found that refocusing on your strengths helps you move through a negative or sad mood about your situation. Reminding yourself of what you think you’re good at enables you to leverage those strengths; lift you through and beyond the sadness of your life situation. More broadly, as a Boston University study found, a hopeful, positive outlook in general promotes greater emotional well-being. It shifts your focus away from current negative experiences, rather than dwelling on them.

These and related studies circle back to a summary of evidence from several studies about what helps when love breaks your heart, from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. The findings include stepping outside yourself; seeing your life in the broader context of your ongoing “story,” and not just limited by the end of this particular relationship. Also, reaching out to others for positive social connection reduces the stress of your heartache. Seeking a greater purpose to your life, especially through doing something “outside” of your own concerns or needs, is probably the most important. It expands your well-being and sense of engagement with something larger than just yourself—a world of other people, of all of us, who are also seeking love, connection, and meaning within our finite lives.

Then, you may be answering the question raised in the old Bee Gees’ song, “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?”

Copyright 2022 Douglas LaBier.

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