Why is sadness so appealing?
When Taylor Swift's "All Too Well" – a ten-minute long song about heartbreak – became the Billboard Hot One Hundred No.1, I found the event difficult to comprehend. As humans, our primary goal is always to flee sadness, we would do anything to escape a sad situation. Happiness is at the centre of our lives. Yes, this 'happiness' is relative, yet it can universally be held as something that obliterates sadness, the latter being a feeling of dejection and wretchedness, and deemed undesirable.
If this is true, I couldn't really put two and two together, why is "All Too Well" such a sensation? This initial question unfurled subsequent ones: why do we bawl our eyes out over Titanic over and over again? Why are people reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (an eight-hundred-page book about friendship, love, and loss) only to feel extremely blue afterwards? I myself love a hearty cry, and so I hopped on the trend and read this humongous book last year: I still haven't recovered, but in a good way. By vicariously feeling the griefs, losses and crises of the characters in the book, in some magical way, I could comprehend my own unidentifiable emotions. This deliverance, this catharsis provided by sadness in art, media and literature is what captivates people.
According to the claims of Oxford University researchers, movies with elements of trauma forges feelings of group bonding and elevates pain tolerance capacity by revving up endorphin levels. They recorded an average rise of 13.1 percent in the endorphin level of the group of participants who watched a sad film as opposed to an average decline of 4.6 percent in the pain endurance capacity in the group of participants who were shown documentaries on nature and history.
In the case of sad books, the outcome is the same. Books that have plaintive plots and struggling characters are more preferred by readers. They help readers to be cognizant of topics like war, mental health issues, betrayal, family problems, social injustice, failure, self-loathing, victimisation, disgust etc. When characters suffer, readers suffer with them, ultimately widening their awareness frontier. Additionally, book clubs enable readers to exchange views on the emotive facets of sad books. These books also aid in recognising and processing feelings about feelings themselves, also termed as meta-emotions.
Biologically, prolactin and oxytocin hormones with placating effects are released not only when we find ourselves enduring loss or grieving but also when we try to walk in others' shoes through listening to sad music. Psychologically, whilst listening to melancholic music, we experience what in Sanskrit is called Kama Muta: being moved by love. This comes from partaking in someone else's anguish and troubles. Here lies the allure of songs like "All Too Well".
Sadness takes us to places where we might not want to be, it makes us see and hear things we might feel aggrieved about; yet these experiences are essential to embrace life holistically and evolve perspective-wise. Sadness as an element by being infused in music, media, and literature entices us to mull over the interconnectivity that exists among everything, real or imaginary, close or afar. Hence, we run whence gloom springs.
1. The Guardian (September 21, 2016). Watching sad films boosts endorphin levels in your brain, psychologists say.
2. The Guardian (January 19, 2016). A Little Life: why everyone should read this modern-day classic.
3. The New York Times (September 20, 2013). Why We Like Sad Music.
4. Magdalene.co (December 06, 2021). The Psychology of Why Sad Songs Make Us Feel Good.
Mastura believes Hozier himself is a balladic masterpiece. Tell her you agree at [email protected]