Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


(PHOTO: LDM/SHUTTERSTOCK)

(PHOTO: LDM/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Positive Intentions, Joyful Music Key to Happiness

• February 04, 2013 • 10:10 AM

(PHOTO: LDM/SHUTTERSTOCK)

New research finds trying to become happy can work, if it’s paired with listening to uplifting music.

Can you will yourself into feeling happier? Adding evidence to a centuries-old philosophical debate, newly published research suggests that indeed you can—with a little help from Aaron Copland.

“Listening to positive music may be an effective way to improve happiness, particularly when it is combined with an intention to become happier,” write psychologists Yuna Ferguson and Kennon Sheldon. Their study suggests neither a determination to be happy nor uplifting music are sufficient alone: It’s the combination that seems to do the trick.

Writing in the Journal of Positive Psychology,the researchers describe two experiments backing up their thesis. In the first, 167 students at a major Midwestern university listened to a 12-minute excerpt from one of two masterpieces of 20th-century classical music: Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring …

… or Aaron Copland’s Rodeo: 

The Stravinsky work is, at times, harsh and jarring, while the melodic Copland is easily enjoyable.

Roughly half the participants were instructed “to consciously try to improve your mood while listening to this music.” The others were asked to “just listen naturally.” Afterwards, all were asked to express their mood, both directly (on a scale from very positive to very negative) and indirectly (by their reaction to a series of words including “joyful” and “satisfied”).

For those who listened to the Stravinsky, consciously attempting to be happier had no significant impact on their mood. However, among those who listened to Copland, the identical effort paid off: Those who consciously attempted to elevate their mood reported feeling happier, overall, than those who did not.

“This demonstrates that the combination of intentions and proper method is important in raising positive mood,” the researchers conclude—the “proper method” being, in this case, listening to music that is congruent with happiness.

In the second study, 68 students attended five lab sessions in which they listened to 15 minutes of music of their choosing. The pieces were from various genres, but all were “specifically chosen because they were thought to enhance positive mood.”

Half were instructed that, over a two-week period, they should “think a lot about their happiness and try to feel happier.” In contrast, the others were warned that “by focusing on your happiness, you risk distracting yourself from enjoying the music and the positive effects it may have on you.” Thus they should “attend to the music rather than focusing on your happiness.”

At the beginning and end of the two-week period, they filled out a standard survey designed to measure how happy they felt. The researchers found “a larger increase in subjective happiness” among those who consciously worked at elevating their spirits. This suggests that “the will to become happier,” combined with music that evokes positive emotions, can be a powerful combination.

It all brings to mind Roger Miller’s novelty song of the 1960s, You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd, in which the singer lists a series of impossible pursuits before adding, “But you can be happy if you put your mind to it.”

It appears he was right, with one caveat: You need to “put your mind to it” while listening to happy music, like the clever songs of Roger Miler.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.