The Psychology of Music And Happiness

music happiness

Music and dance are perhaps the best known mood elevators known to the world. And if you add friends and food to the experience, then it becomes a ‘blast’ of happiness. But how – how does this mix of Music, Dance, Friends and Food turns your head into a swirling swim-pool of happiness?

Heady Mix: Music, Dance, Friends, Food

October is a season of music and dance in many parts of the world. Europe has Unsound, Donau and Norberg, while Norway has Ekko, and Graz, Austria has Elevate. In the Americas, Denver hosts the Great American Techno Fest, Mexico is hosting MutekMx. There is Unsound in Poland, and Robot in Bologna, Italy. And Amsterdam has Ade.

Music and Happiness

Two US psychologists, Ferguson and Sheldon, in a 2012 study showed that students who listened to just 12 minutes “happy” music while trying to be feel happier experienced higher elevations in mood. In the second part of their study, participants were instructed to intentionally try to become happier. These participants reported higher increases in happiness after listening to positively attractive music during five separate visits over a two-week period. These studies demonstrate that listening to positive music may be an effective way to improve happiness, particularly when it is combined with an intention to become happier.

Dance and Happiness

When there’s music that makes us want to start dancing, it is an experience that is called groove. Groove is defined as “the sensation of wanting to move some part of your body in relation to some aspect of the music,” as per Madison (2006).

Janata et al (2012), asked many participants describe this sensation of groove in their own words. Based on their most frequently used words, they arrived at this definition: “Groove is the aspect of the music that induces a pleasant sense of wanting to move along with the music.”

The surprising thing is that groove is experienced even when the listeners are presented with unfamiliar music.

And once you start dancing, it becomes a physical exercise giving you the happiness benefits of an exercise activity. “Exercise generates the release of serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine in the brain. Exercise increases the brain’s learning and memory capacities.” (John Ratey, 2008). “People’s mood significantly increased after exercising.” (University of Bristol).

Read more about exercise and happiness:

Friends and Happiness

Friends make us happier. We know this instinctively.

We also seem to believe that those with somewhat a larger circle of friends are happier than others, or at least appear to be so. With these culturally inbred beliefs, when we look towards science for a validation, the Positive Psychology researchers have this to say: “We are happier when we are with other people (as compared to when we are alone) – and this holds true for all of us, the introverts as well as the extroverts.” They also concluded that people, who are more happy, are more sociable. And the more sociable the people were, the happier they were found to be. It works both ways. A 2012 study suggests that a large circle of friends, averaging around 3 to 6 in number, is the key to well-being in the middle life.

Statistical analysis of Facebook network shows that people who smile tend to have more friends. Smiling gets us an average of one extra friend.

Nevertheless, psychology warns us, we need to carefully pick friends. We should choose those who are inherently happy – otherwise we run the risk of their unhappiness spreading to us. Having unhappy friends over time makes us less happy.

Read more about friendship and happiness.

Food and Happiness

– By Josh Clark

[This part of the post is an excerpt from the article Can food make people happy?]

The science of happiness has figured out why certain foods make us happy. It turns out that some foods are made of compounds that have been shown to have an effect on our mood.

Two types of neurotransmitters are responsible for our moods: inhibitory and excitatory. Excitatory neurotransmitters like norepinephrine stimulate our bodies and minds. We get worn out after being amped up for too long, though, and so this type of neurotransmitter can actually lead to unhappiness. Inhibitory neurotransmitters like serotonin exert a calming influence on our minds, in part by counteracting the effects of excitatory neurotransmitters. Ultimately, the best moods are found when there is a balance between these two types.

Another major neurotransmitter that helps regulate and stabilize mood is gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), commonly referred to as “nature’s Valium” because of its tranquilizing effects on the body. GABA is produced during the Krebs cycle, a physiological process by which nutrients are converted to energy for cellular use. Foods don’t contain GABA, but some contain the neurotransmitter’s building block, an amino acid called l-glutamine. Pork, beef and sesame and sunflower seeds all have high concentrations of glutamine. Since l-glutamine can also transcend the blood-brain barrier and aids GABA production during the Krebs cycle, these foods can have an indirect but useful impact on your happiness.

Although comfort foods (or the events attached to them) vary from person to person, the foods we associate with comforting or happy emotions vary by gender. A 2005 Cornell University survey of 277 men and women found that females tend to seek comfort in sweet and sugary foods like ice cream, while males prefer savory comfort foods like steak and soup. The study also found that men tend to use comfort foods as a reward, while women often feel guilty after indulging.

Food and Emotions

The science of happiness has turned up evidence that food can make you happy. However, a lack of certain foods – or at least some of their essential ingredients – can actually make you sad. A fatty acid called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is the most abundant fat found in the brain. This is good, since it’s an essential building block for brain structure. It’s also easy to get; two major sources of DHA are fish and shellfish. A study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) uncovered a link between DHA deficiency and an increase in the prevalence of depression in the United States.

Oddly, while some foods have been shown to improve mood in the human brain, restricting food intake can have an even more pronounced effect on happiness. A hormone called ghrelin within the stomach heads over to the brain and tells it that it’s time to eat. When ghrelin is produced, you feel hungry. After you ingest food, ghrelin production stops and your brain ceases to receive hunger signals.

When you don’t eat, however, ghrelin production continues and the hormone builds up in the brain. While the increased ghrelin will prolong your hunger, researchers have found that the hormone also acts as a natural antidepressant. A 2008 University of Texas study by Lutter and others found that rodents injected with ghrelin showed decreased symptoms of stress and anxiety. Interestingly, rodents that were placed on a calorie-restricted diet (40% of normal caloric intake) showed the same results.

Whether it’s psychological or physiological, it’s clear that foods have a powerful effect on our moods. It would appear that eating only nutrient-packed foods that affect brain chemistry might be the best way to achieve happiness, but the occasional indulgence should make you just as happy. Perhaps a healthy balance of nutritious foods and comfort foods can help maintain the balance in a person’s mood best of all.

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