Explore the psychology of music and happiness, and find out how melodies, rhythms, and harmonies affect our emotions and mental states.
Have you ever noticed how a simple tune can lift your spirits or a particular song can transport you back to a special moment in time?
Music is perhaps the best-known mood elevator in the world. And it becomes a “blast” of happiness when you add friends and food to the experience.
Music is more than just a form of entertainment; it’s a universal language that speaks to our very soul.
The connection between music and happiness is deeply rooted in our brains, and understanding this connection can unlock new ways to enhance our well-being.
“Music can change the world because it can change people.”— Bono, U2
Welcome to the fascinating world of the psychology of music and happiness. Let’s find out how music, dance, and friends turn your brain into a swirling pool of joyful emotions.
Psychology of Music and Happiness
Most people derive pleasure from music. Whether it’s a foot-tapping pop song or a soothing classical piece, music has the power to influence how we feel.
In fact, research indicates that people value music primarily because of the emotions it evokes.
Music Connects To Our Basic Nature
Back in 2001, Blood & Zatorre used brain scans to study how it reacts when people listen to music that gives them intense pleasure, like the feeling of “chills” or “shivers down the spine.”
They found that when people felt these chills, parts of the brain linked to feelings of reward, emotion, and excitement became more active. These were the same areas that respond to other enjoyable things like food, sex, and certain activities.
The study showed that music connects to our basic human nature, and affects our brains in a way that’s similar to other things that are important for our survival and happiness.
Music Reduces Stress In Body & Mind
De Witte, Spruit & van Hooren (2019) conducted a comprehensive analysis of 104 studies to assess how music can affect both physical signs of stress (like heart rate and blood pressure) and feelings of stress (like anxiety and nervousness).
They found that music interventions had a significant positive effect. It reduced stress, both physical and psychological stress, with positive effects on heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormone levels.
The study shows how music is an effective tool for stress reduction.
Meaningful Music Awakens Our Hearts
De Leeuw & Janicke-Bowles (2021) studied 105 participants to compare the effects of listening to meaningful music versus pleasurable music on emotions, feelings of connection, and altruistic behaviors.
They found that listening to meaningful music led to stronger feelings of being moved and inspired, more contemplation, and a greater desire to express love to others, compared to pleasurable music.
However, both types of music were found to evoke intense emotions and a desire to connect with others, showing that both meaningful and pleasurable music can open our hearts and foster connection.
Music Creates “Flow” Experiences
Baker and MacDonald (2013) studied the songwriting experiences of 26 participants in a therapeutic setting, focusing on themes like artistic concerns, self-exploration, and the relationship with the therapist.
A key finding was the presence of “flow” experiences, where participants felt fully immersed in the songwriting process, losing track of time, and finding a balance between ability and effort.
The study showed that songwriting can be an enjoyable and rewarding way to explore oneself, enhance mood, and create satisfying artistic work, with participants often feeling disappointed when their sessions ended.
Intentional Happy Music Makes Us Happy
This study by US psychologists Ferguson and Sheldon adds weight to this connection. They showed that students who listened to just 12 minutes of “happy” music while trying to feel happier experienced higher elevations in mood.
In a follow-up experiment, participants who intentionally tried to become happier reported higher increases in happiness after listening to positive music during five separate visits over two weeks.
“Our work provides support for what many people already do – listen to music to improve their moods,” said Yuna Ferguson, lead author of the study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology.
So, listening to positive music can rise your happiness, particularly when you combine it with an intention to become happier.
Everyday Music Increases Our Well-being
Everyday music listening, while not a specific field of study, plays a crucial role in health and well-being, often acting as an informal type of therapy for mood regulation (Skånland, 2011, 2012).
The rise of digital technology, allowing access to personal music collections around the clock, along with a deeper understanding of how personal and emotional factors influence music perception, has shown the importance of personal preference and familiarity in how music affects us (MacDonald et al., 2012b; Juslin & Sloboda, 2010; MacDonald et al., 2002; Miell, MacDonald, & Hargreaves, 2005).
Studies have further shown that preferred music can effectively reduce anxiety and pain perceptions in hospital settings, such as patients undergoing kidney dialysis, highlighting the therapeutic potential of self-selected music (MacDonald et al., 2003; Pothoulaki et al., 2008).
Why Do We Listen To Music?
Listening to music may serve a range of dynamic functions throughout our lives. It is a common activity that most of us indulge in from childhood through adulthood and into late old age (Laukka, 2007; Juslin et al., 2008).
For some people, it is their main source of entertainment. For others, it is a way to unwind and relax. For others, it is a way to get to sleep.
Some people listen to music to avoid boredom (music, in fact, activates the entire brain.). Some find it a way to feel more connected to others.
Most of us who enjoy listening to music know that each generation prefers a particular genre of music.
Since, it is a way to experience a sense of belonging to a group (like an age group), or a community (like teens who love a particular singer), music can be a recognizable ‘logo’ for different social classes.
So, your favorite music can:
- Reduce stress levels and improve your mood, leading to a more relaxed and content state of mind.
- Increase your motivation and productivity, helping you accomplish tasks and achieve your goals more efficiently.
- Enhance creativity and cognitive function, stimulating new ideas and assisting in problem-solving.
- Foster a sense of connection and community, especially when shared with others, building social bonds and friendships.
- Serve as a therapeutic tool, helping emotional expression and self-reflection, and promoting mental well-being.
- Improve physical health by encouraging movement and exercise, such as dancing or working out to upbeat tunes, adding to overall fitness and energy levels.
Dance and Happiness
When there’s music that makes us want to dance, it is an experience that is called a 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 to describe this sensation of the 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.
Once you start dancing, it becomes a physical exercise giving you the happiness-benefits of exercise activity. “Exercise generates the release of serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine in the brain. Exercise increases the brain’s learning and memory capacities,” said John Ratey (2008).
People’s mood significantly increased after exercising.– John Ratey
How Music, Friends, and Happiness Are Connected
Friends make us happier. We know this instinctively.
We often think that people with more friends are happier. Science actually backs this up. Positive psychology research says:
“We are happier when we are with other people (as compared to when we are alone)—and this holds for all of us, the introverts as well as the extroverts.”
They also found that happy people tend to have more friends, and the more friends you have, the happier you might be. It goes both ways. The study even points out that having a close group of friends, around 3 to 6, is key to feeling good in life.
Researchers Shigehiro Oishi (University of Virginia) and Selin Kesebir (London Business School) noted:
“As residential mobility decreases and economic recession deepens in the United States, the optimal social-networking strategy might shift from the broad but shallow to the narrow but deep, even in a nation known best for the strength of weak ties.”
Even on Facebook, people who smile in their pictures usually have more friends. A smile can actually get you one more friend on average.
But be careful who you choose as friends. If you hang out with unhappy people, you might start feeling down too. It’s better to be around happy folks, so their good vibes rub off on you.
This all shows how important friends are to our happiness.
And guess what? Music plays a big part in this. Enjoying music with friends can make these connections even stronger and add to our joy in life. It’s like a universal language that brings us all closer together.
Heady Mix: Music Festivals In October
October in many regions of the world is a season of music and dance. Coachella canceled its plans for the year 2021, while other festivals such as Lollapalooza had no dates to declare because of Covid.
Europe had Unsound, Donau, and Norberg, while Norway had Ekko, and Graz, Austria has Elevate.
In the Americas, Denver hosts the Great American Techno Fest, and Mexico is known to host MutekMx.
Then there is Robot in Bologna, Italy, and Ade in Amsterdam.
How music affects our brain?
Music stimulates the brain’s reward system, triggering the release of dopamine, a “feel-good” chemical. This process affects our mood and motivation, enhancing feelings of pleasure and happiness. Studies support the idea that human creativity relies on dopamine, further proving music’s powerful impact on the brain.
How music triggers memories and emotions from the past?
Music has the ability to trigger memories and emotions from the past by activating specific brain regions associated with memory, such as the hippocampus. A particular song or melody can evoke nostalgia, acting as a soundtrack to a past experience, bringing back vivid memories and the emotions tied to them. This is why certain songs can instantly transport us back to a specific time, place, or feeling.
How music brings people together in a sense of community?
Music serves as a universal language that can bring people together, fostering a sense of community and shared identity. By engaging in musical activities together, such as attending concerts, participating in community choirs, or simply enjoying a song with friends, individuals connect on an emotional level, creating shared experiences that enhance happiness and social bonds. The importance of these shared musical experiences lies in their ability to transcend cultural and personal differences, uniting people in joy and understanding, and reinforcing the sense of belonging and community that is vital to human well-being.
What are the benefits of listening to your favorite music?
Jenny M. Groarke and Michael J. Hogan’s research identifies 11 key adaptive functions of music that reflect the role music plays in our lives: Stress Reduction, Anxiety Regulation, Anger Management, Loneliness Management, Rumination, Reminiscence, Strong Emotional Experiences, Awe and Appreciation, Cognitive Regulation, Identity, and Sleep.
Music appeals to everyone, from babies to the elderly. It is something that the vast majority of us experience and enjoy for one reason or another. It is a powerful force that tugs at our heartstrings.
Research has shown that listening to sad music can prolong our negative moods.
Called musical rumination, such states are associated with lower subjective, psychological, and social well-being.
On the flip side, music can make the tiniest of events seem monumental—and the next thing you know, you’re listening to your favorite band play on repeat.
With the rise of smartphones, it has become simpler to let music dictate our moods and minds. We might listen to our favorite sad songs while commuting to feel melancholic, or we can listen to some peaceful music to unwind after a hard day.
Researched and reviewed by Dr. Sandip Roy — medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher.
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