Why Breakup Songs Hurt So Good

Cristen Conger

Breakup songs substitute for empathetic friends.
Breakup songs substitute for empathetic friends.
Flickr/Nathan Heeney

Humans have pretty low emotional pain tolerances, and research has shown that people instinctively seek out distractions away from sources of whatever unpleasantness ails, hence the indefatigable sales of alcohol and ice cream.

But when trouble arises in interpersonal relationships, the heartbroken also often spend time wallowing in the negativity, perhaps playing Bon Iver's "For Emma" on repeat as though intentionally keeping the waterworks faucet turned up to full blast (not that I've ever done anything like that ever...).

Caroline and I talked about the peculiar appeal of breakup songs in a Stuff Mom Never Told You episode. In it, we cited a Scientific American post about how the doleful tunes actually gird us up by neurologically diminishing our perception of painful stimuli. Since music has been shown to stimulate dopamine release in brain's "reward system," which is hurting the most following a breakup, dreary albums that we indulge in actually can help us begin to move on.

A recent study in the Journal of Consumer Research also puts forth another theory on why it's common for us to listen to sad music when we're sad about a relationship ("mood-congruent stimuli" in fancytalk), since it contradicts humans' tendency toward mitigating rather than amplifying pain. As described over at Huffington Post Women, Berkeley marketing PhD candidate Chan Jean Lee explored how participants responded to a series of hypothetical unpleasant events (i.e. "lost someone you love," "failed an exam," etc.) and found that when dealing with interpersonal hardship, folks overwhelmingly wanted either sad music or an empathetic friend. Therefore, Lee theorized that sad music serves as a symbolic shoulder to cry on. In other words, when people make us sad, we want to relate to another person feeling sad, which evolutionary biologists would likely explain as our ingrained resistance to isolation.

Now, what I'd like to know is how much is too much when it comes to breakup songs. Is there a point at which sad songs lose their potential to help us out and only exacerbate our blues? I'm guessing it might correlate to how much we're funding those ice cream and alcohol sales I mentioned at the top of the post.

Listen to the podcast: Why do breakup songs hurt so good?