“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.