In the recent Oscar winner The Big Short, the awkward but brilliant investor Michael Burry copes with the stress brought on by angry clients through means familiar to certain suburban teenagers: heavy metal. Throughout the film, he constantly blasts hard rock in his office while he works and drums along to Pantera at home as his world crashes down on him.
Despite what our parents told us about angry music (usually at the same time that we donned headphones blaring said music in order to drown them out), Burry’s coping strategy has been proven by science as an excellent way to become more agreeable when we’re upset.
To reach this conclusion, a group of scientists took music fans and made them angry. They then had them listen to angry music for 10 minutes. The music caused participants to perk up (what scientists call "state arousal"), but it also did something surprising. Instead of making the angry people angrier, it resulted in, as the results published last year in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience indicated, "an increase in positive emotions."
The study concluded that for fans of rock music especially, "Listening to extreme music may represent a healthy way of processing anger."
Research shows that despite what we’re often told, bottling up anger is quite unhealthy. Resisting negative emotions unfortunately tends to make people feel worse than embracing them. At the same time, acting out our anger can make us more angry and has unpleasant side effects; punching a coworker because they made you mad is a good way to end up unhappy and unemployed. It turns out that music can help us avoid both by helping us process anger instead of stifling or augmenting it.
The human brain distinguishes between two different categories of emotion: felt emotions and perceived emotions. The latter are emotions that you infer from the context around you—such as from music or art or other people. Music helps us perceive strong emotions, empathize with them, and work through them.
It’s sort of like when you shake a soda bottle. If you twist the cap off all at once, soda will spill everywhere. If you shake it and do nothing, pressure builds and takes a long time to dissipate—and a small provocation might cause it to explode. But if you slowly twist the bottle cap to release the pressure, your angry soda calms down much faster.
Various studies show a similar phenomenon with sad music. Many people, it turns out, listen to sad music when they’re feeling sad. For most, the music helps them feel better, according to a study published in the journal Music Perception. "When they were feeling sad," the authors wrote, "sad music helped these individuals to connect with their emotions through the music to fully experience sadness and consequently improve their affect."
One critical factor, however, determined whether sad music made research participants feel better or worse. Those who were open-minded or empathetic felt better with the aid of music. Those who were more prone to depressing ruminations, or those with lower self-esteem, actually felt more sad after listening to sad music.
So if you want to get back to being agreeable when you’re in a bad mood, doubling down on the feeling with music is a great strategy, so long as you’re open to it. It turns out, though, that the music you listen to when you’re not sad or angry can also affect how pleasant you are in general.
A 2010 study of 36,000 people around the world conducted by Adrian C. North of Heriot-Watt University found that people who liked certain genres of music tended to have high self-esteem. Specifically, fans of classical, pop, jazz, and—this may surprise some people—rap.
Whether this is causal or simply correlation isn’t discussed in the research, but the correlation is very strong. (It could be that confident people like rap music, but it could also be that listening to rap makes us feel better about ourselves because the subject matter is often self-aggrandizing and/or competitive.)
Crucially, it’s just people who actually like these types of music who, according to the study, have high self-esteem. Simply listening to a jazz album once won’t do the trick. However, we’ve known since the 1960s through the work of psychologist Robert Zajonc on "mere exposure theory," that the more familiar a type of music becomes, the more inclined we are to like it. And recently, MRI scans of music listeners’ brains show that the more familiar music is, the greater one’s emotional response to it. So getting used to one of these types of music might lead to its psychological benefits.
In other words, it’s possible that simply switching your morning music selection from indie-folk to pop can make you more self-confident. (This probably explains why I feel great about myself after running the Williamsburg Bridge while singing along to Katy Perry despite all the weird looks I get.)
The payoff: Self-confident people tend to be more open and agreeable to others. The higher your self-esteem, the more likely you’ll be to collaborate well at work, the more persuasive a leader you’ll be, and the more open to creativity and lateral thinking you’ll become.
So crank that Metallica next time you’re angry, put on Conor Oberst next time you’re depressed, and pump Beyoncé to feel confident in general. And if you’re interested in all three at once, may I suggest the song "Get Ready to Die" by Andrew WK. It’s quite possibly the poppiest angry-sad song you’ll ever hear, and somehow it makes me excited to live.
This article originally appeared on Man Eating Robot and is reprinted with permission.