So what’s behind the power of the playlist? Valorie Salimpoor, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology and neuroscience at McGill University who has studied the impact of music on mood, says there are three ways music can reduce depression.
• It’s a distraction. “The brain is organized in such a way that thinking about one bad thing recalls another,” Salimpoor says. “Music provides a great intrusion and breaks this cycle. When you’re concentrating on the music you hear, you don’t have the mental resources to focus on other negative thoughts.”
• It gets you high. Salimpoor authored a study earlier this year, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, which found listening to your favorite songs boosts levels of the hormone dopamine. “Dopamine gets us excited and motivated to do things,” she says. “There are many drugs that target this system, but music provides a natural high.”
• It makes you feel understood. Just because you’re feeling sad doesn’t mean you should avoid sad songs. In fact, “listening to sad songs can make you feel like someone out there knows exactly how you feel,” Salimpoor says. “And that can help you feel less alone when you’re depressed.”
To make music your medicine, Salimpoor says any song will work as long as you like the music and welcome the distraction. “Go through your music collection and create playlists that you know will make you feel a certain way,” Salimpoor says. For instance, you could have a “feel good” playlist that gets you energized, or a “let-me-continue-to-feel-sad-but-feel-like-someone-else-gets-me” playlist. (Cue R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts.”)
It’s also important to take steps that will prevent you from getting bored with your music, which could cause you to stop listening to it (and thus spiral back down into the doldrums). Check out programs such as Pandora, iHeartRadio, or LastFM, which find new music for you based on your tastes.