Menus Subscribe Search
(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

July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



July 24 • 9:48 AM

The People Who Are Scared of Dogs

While more people fear snakes or spiders, with dogs everywhere, cynophobia makes everyday public life a constant challenge.


July 24 • 8:00 AM

Newton’s Needle: On Scientific Self-Experimentation

It is all too easy to treat science as a platform that allows the observer to hover over the messiness of life, unobserved and untouched. But by remembering the role of the body in science, perhaps we humanize it as well.


July 24 • 6:00 AM

Commercializing the Counterculture: How the Summer Music Festival Went Mainstream

With painted Volkswagen buses, talk of “free love,” and other reminders of the Woodstock era replaced by advertising and corporate sponsorships, hippie culture may be dying, but a new subculture—a sort of purgatory between hipster and hippie—is on the rise.


July 24 • 5:00 AM

In Praise of Our Short Attention Spans

Maybe there’s a good reason why it seems like there’s been a decline in our our ability to concentrate for a prolonged period of time.


July 24 • 4:00 AM

How Stereotypes Take Shape

New research from Scotland finds they’re an unfortunate product of the way we process and share information.


July 23 • 4:00 PM

Who Doesn’t Like Atheists?

The Pew Research Center asked Americans of varying religious affiliations how they felt about each other.


July 23 • 2:00 PM

We Need to Start Tracking Patient Harm and Medical Mistakes Now

Top patient-safety experts call on Congress to step in and, among other steps, give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wider responsibility for measuring medical mistakes.


July 23 • 12:19 PM

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.


July 23 • 12:00 PM

Why Do We Love the ‘Kim Kardashian: Hollywood’ Game?

It’s easy enough to turn yourself into a virtual celebrity, complete with fame and mansions—but it will likely cost you.


July 23 • 11:49 AM

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.


July 23 • 10:00 AM

Outing the Death-Drug Distributors

Calling all hackers: It’s time to go Assange on capital punishment.


July 23 • 8:00 AM

The Surprising Appeal of Products That Require Effort to Use

New research finds they enable consumers to re-establish a feeling that they’re in control of their lives.



July 23 • 6:00 AM

How the Other Half Lifts: What Your Workout Says About Your Social Class

Why can’t triathletes and weightlifters get along?


July 23 • 5:02 AM

Battle of the Public Intellectuals: Edward Glaeser vs. Richard Florida

On gentrification and housing costs.


July 23 • 4:00 AM

Our Fear of Immigrants

Why did a group of fourth graders rally in support of an undocumented classmate while the citizens of Murrieta, California, tried to stop immigrant children from entering their town?


July 22 • 4:00 PM

Can Meditation Really Slow Aging?

Is there real science in the spiritualism of meditation? Jo Marchant meets a Nobel Prize-winner who thinks so.



July 22 • 2:00 PM

The Alabama Judge Who Refuses to Let Desegregation Orders Go Ignored

A federal judge in Alabama says a local school board has failed to meet legal mandate to integrate.


July 22 • 12:00 PM

On the Destinations of Species

It’s almost always easier to cross international borders if you’re something other than human.


July 22 • 10:51 AM

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

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