Last time, we looked at the role that self-selection can play in happiness and well-being-related research. In doing so, we highlighted a study which found that while participants who are enthusiastic about the prospect of taking part in interventions designed to boost well-being are likely to benefit most, the positive results that such studies frequently report are not exclusively due to priming, i.e., participants knowing what the research is about and taking part because they want to boost their well-being.
Such findings are important, because they serve to counter the suggestion that well-being interventions are effectively placebos, i.e., participants’ desire to benefit accounting for positive results, as opposed to the actual interventions. Yes, participants who know what the research is about, subscribe to the ideas behind it, and adhere to the intervention programme will most likely fare best, but they are not the only ones to benefit, and regardless of knowledge, enthusiasm, and commitment, participants in active conditions tend to fare better than those in control conditions.
Against that backdrop, while it is important to know that well-being interventions have some objective rigour, once that has been established it is also interesting to look at research where participants are actively encouraged as part of the study design to attempt to ‘make themselves happier’.
One such study was published in The Journal of Positive Psychology in 2013. The central question posed by Yuna Ferguson and Kennon Sheldon at the outset focused on whether consciously attempting to be happier would help or hinder the actual experience of happiness.
On one level, it might feel counterintuitive to think in terms of actively trying to be happier, i.e., putting effort into it. Thinking in these terms may make trying to be happier feel like work, and if that is the case, might that not be a contradiction in terms? However, it is often the case that what feels intuitively true or is considered to be ‘common sense’ does not stand up well to the scrutiny of scientific research.
So, with that in mind, Ferguson and Sheldon sought to test whether the idea of actually striving for happiness can work.
To investigate this question, they recruited almost 250 students from a U.S. college and in two distinct but related studies exposed them to different pieces of music.
In the first study, participants listened to either 12 minutes of a piece upbeat/positive – Copland’s Rodeo – or spent the same amount of time listening to music deemed to more ambiguous in tone – Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Half of the participants in each condition were instructed to consciously try to boost their mood as they listened, while the others were asked to simply listen naturally.
The authors found that participants instructed to attempt to boost their mood while listening reported higher positive mood ratings after being exposed to the music, but only with the upbeat material. This suggested that the intention to boost positive mood in of itself was not enough, but when combined with compatible music, the combination could be effective.
The second study followed the same basic structure, but was extended over time, with participants visiting a laboratory to listen to selected pieces of music on five separate occasions over two weeks. Similar findings were reported.
The researchers concluded that “listening to positive music may be an effective way to improve happiness, particularly when it is combined with an intention to become happier”.
While sometimes scientific research can call into question truisms and intuition, in this case it seems that the idea of listening to music to cheer yourself up may well have some solid backing behind it.
However, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a one-size-fits all. By that I mean that individual tastes differ and therefore so too might the music happiness ‘prescription’.
It is important to remember that quantitative research findings point to trends and do not amount to absolute statements of what will work for every individual. So, in this instance, the trend was that listening to positively valenced music correlated with improved mood ratings, but it is possible that the happiest individual in the overall sample may not have derived any benefit from listening to the positive music. That would not detract from the findings, but merely serves to highlight that a trend tells us what works for most people, but not all.
The point being that what works for you may not fit with the trend. Some people derive great pleasure from listening to nominally sad music and run a mile from anything that sounds remotely happy-clappy, whereas for others, even hearing the intro for a downbeat song might be enough to adversely affect their mood.
The point is to go with what works for you. It may not make a long-lasting impression on your happiness, but if we know that the ‘right’ music can give us a boost in the here and now, then why wouldn’t we seek to make the most of that?
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013, and is also a freelance writer.