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Wallowing Is the Best Way to Get Over Pretty Much Everything

If you don’t indulge your feelings, you’re worse off in the long run

“Turn them on, turn on those sad songs,” sang Elton John sometime in the multiple-hat-wearing part of the 1980s, before going on to explain why he thought this was an activity everyone should indulge in every now and again: “It feels so good to hurt so bad, and suffer just enough to sing the blues.”

He’s not wrong: When we’re feeling forlorn, the first thing many of want to do is shut ourselves away from the world and wallow in deeply miserable music — thereby compounding the desolation. Yet somehow, this gives you a boost.

“It’s quite cathartic, isn’t it?” says DJ Cliff Gloom, aka Carl Hill, founder of Feeling Gloomy, a club night that’s been cornering the market in despondent dance parties in New York, London and other cities across the world for the past decade. “There’s the element of ‘Oh, someone else has been through this, someone else knows.’ You get it all out, have a howl along to ‘Without You’ and you feel better.”

Believe it or not, there’s ample science to back up both Cliff Gloom and Sir Elton. One study conducted in Japan — published on Nature’s Scientific Reports website this year — found that, “sad songs induced strong pleasure,” although it also admitted that “it is difficult to account for why people feel sad music as pleasurable.” Meanwhile, a survey conducted by the Free University of Berlin has found that people who like to wallow in melancholy songs experience no less than “four different rewards of music-evoked sadness: reward of imagination, emotion regulation, empathy and [a liberating lack of] ‘real-life’ implications.”

So far, so good for those sad songs. But in general, where does this impulse to wallow come from? Whether it’s repeat-watching weepy movies, kicking a pebble all the way home or refusing to get out of bed for 72 hours, none of the traditional poor-me activities people resort to in times of distress are particularly productive, so why are so many of us prone to put life on pause for pity’s sake?

“It’s far more natural to wallow than not to,” argues Tina Gilbertson, a Denver-based psychologist and author of Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them. “When we’re injured physically, the body sends attention and energy to the injured part. It’s natural for the mind to do the same when we’re hurting emotionally.” According to Gilbertson, “Refusing to wallow is like walking around on a broken foot instead of attending to it.”

This diagnosis is perhaps out of step with the cult of positivity that’s come to dominate American society, where maintaining a relentlessly cheery, upbeat outlook is so often presented as the key to success and well-being. But if Gilbertson is right, this might well be leaving multitudes to hobble through life on gangrenous suppressed emotions. Many of us, she explains, don’t want to let self-pity into our lives because we’re taught — by the media, by social convention, by business orthodoxy — to “police ourselves and our offspring in order to be good citizens in a culture that values productivity.”

Also, people are often brought up to be afraid to entertain their own feelings. “Too many of us grew up in homes where certain emotions are either not expressed at all, or expressed in scary ways,” she says. “In both cases, we learn that some emotions are not safe. Wallowing can seem dangerous in that context.”

But rolling around in your sorrows is good for you, “an important outlet for feelings that might otherwise be suppressed and cause trouble,” Gilbertso says, while mechanically turning that frown upside down might be positively “bad for your health.”

She explains: “Research has started to uncover the negative effects of what psychologists call ‘experiential avoidance’ — put simply, trying not to feel the way you do. The effort to suppress negative emotions correlates with cardiovascular stress.”

And, she continues, letting your sad feelings take the wheel for a while is unlikely to put you at risk of developing depressive tendencies that weren’t there before. Instead, it’s refusing to wallow that, “over time, can lead to depression, anxiety and/or relationship problems.”

So what’s the difference between a healthy hermitage and serious depression? “The key to healthy wallowing is to allow your true feelings into your awareness, and let them inhabit you without trying not to feel them or acting them out,” says Gilbertson. “Just drinking and playing video games every night might look like wallowing but unless you acknowledge the underlying emotions with compassion, it won’t be constructive.”

She’s skeptical about the approach taken by some people of allowing yourself 24 hours to feel down before picking yourself up again and getting on with life. “I don’t recommend setting time limits on experiencing feelings; it’s not like a faucet that you can turn off at will,” she says. “If you wallow constructively, there will be a natural end to it.” But, she advises, “You can help those feelings move through you by giving them names — for example, hurt, anger, regret, remorse, shame, dread… It’s amazing how calming it is just to find a word for what you’re feeling.”

Or, if you’re so inclined, just the right trauma-trouncing tune. If you’re a true believer in the healing power of mournful music, you could try this prescription from Cliff Gloom: Shut the bedroom door, pull your hoodie over your face and wail along to his all-time Top Three sad songs for a feel-good wallow…

  • “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” by The Smiths. “A very funny song when you listen to it, and one of the few to mention being mown down by a double-decker bus.”
  • “Band of Gold” by Freda Payne. “Lyrics so dark you probably don’t want to dwell on them, but a compelling beat and a song that makes you want to get up and slap that no-good mutt [the man who abandoned the singer on their honeymoon] about his chops.”
  • “The Winner Takes It All” by Abba. “I mean, the guy [Abba’s Björn Ulvaeus] writes the lyrics for his ex-wife [Abba’s Agnetha Fältskog] to sing: ‘But tell me, does she kiss like I used to kiss you?’ This is a woman singing about how a marriage has just fallen apart and the guy putting those words in her mouth is her ex-husband. It’s pretty incredible.”