'There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in'. This is one of the most well-known lines from the song-writer and poet, Leonard Cohen, who died a few days ago. For Cohen the future was murder, love was the most challenging activity, love was a burning well and poetry was ash. Despite this dark vision, he wasn't a pessimist. 'I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for rain', he said, 'I am soaked to the bone'.
Cohen's passing was widely mourned. One reason was that we turn to his music when we are feeling soaked to the bone by the black rain of the world. But if we want to feel better, shouldn't we avoid depressing music like Leonard Cohen?
Our love of Leonard Cohen works is an embodiment of what philosophers have called the 'tragedy paradox'. This is strange quirk in our psychology which means we avoid sadness in our own lives, yet are positively drawn to it in art. There seem to be good reasons for this. According to the philosopher Jerrold Levinson, we gain a lot from sad art. It helps us to purge negative emotions, understand ourselves, confirm what we feel, reconnect with memories of the past and much more.
Recent research in psychology suggests switching off Cohen and turning on 'Happy' by Pharrell Williams is not a good idea. Research in neuroscience has demonstrated something Cohen fans have known for years - sad music triggers feelings of pleasure. A study of 2,436 people found listening to sad music leads to different kinds of sorrow. Most people experienced comforting and sweet sorry when they put on sad music. A smaller minority found sad music made them feel grief-stricken sorry.
When we listen to sad music, our body releases prolactin, a hormone which produces a sense of comfort and consolation. Sad music also triggers the release of dopamine in our body. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that usually floods our body when were faced with food, sex and drugs.
One reason that listening to Leonard Cohen might make us feel better is that it leads to what social psychologists call 'downwards social comparison'. When we listen to Cohen's songs about heroine addicts and death, we might start to thinking our problems are actually not so bad after all. By realising there others who are worse off than ourselves, we might actually start to feel good about our lives.
Sad songs don't always make us feel smug. They can also make us more creative. One study found sad music gave listeners time and space to escape their current circumstances and let their imagination roam.
Another study by researchers at Harvard University found when we have a negative experience, we become more creative. The researchers asked students to talk about their dream job. They responded to some of the speech positively (with smiles) and some of them negatively (with frowns). The students where then asked to do a creative task of creating a collage. It turns out the students who received negative feedback tended to make more creative collages.
But sad music is not a pleasure for everyone. People with empathetic personalities tend to react more strongly to sad music. Empathetic people find sad music more pleasurable.
So, if you want to make your life a little more pleasurable, creative and to gain a sense of consolation, turn off Pharrell Williams and put on Leonard Cohen.