Music is a tried and tested tool for triggering catharsis—the relief of finally releasing repressed or pent-up emotions—and now researchers have confirmed that playing a sad song and letting the tears fall freely is an effective shortcut to a sunnier disposition.
The study, recently published in Scientific Reports, had volunteers answer a survey about their response to music, asking how often they “(1) get goose bumps, (2) feel shivers down your spine, (3) feel like weeping, and (4) get a lump in your throat?” After being labeled either a “chills” or a “tears” person, they were separated and asked to listen to six emotional songs, including three they picked for themselves (their go-to emo tunes, if you will).
Participants were asked to hit a button every time they felt either chills or tears, then indicated the amount of pleasure they felt in that moment by moving a mouse on a computer screen. Once each song had finished, they rated the intensity of their emotional response, and while all this was happening researchers also tracked their heart rates and noted outward signs of arousal.
Both groups reported experiencing pleasure while listening, but the emotions behind them differed. The “chills” group described their songs as feeling both happy and sad, while the “tears” group experienced theirs as sad and calming. In other words, the tears induced by the melancholy music provided a release that was both relaxing and enjoyable.
Scientists believe our emotional tears, or psychic tears as they’re also known, have an evolutionary purpose. Firstly, they contain a natural painkiller called leucine enkephalin, which explains why we sometimes cry when we experience physical pain. Secondly, they enable non-verbal communication, which starts when we’re babies and aren’t able to express our needs any other way. Thirdly, they strengthen our relationships because they trigger feelings of compassion in ourselves and others (discounting psychopaths of course).