Here's What Happiness Sounds Like, According to 100 Total Strangers
A few weeks back, I was sitting on the grass watching my 8-year-old, Lily, on the swings at the park. One more minute, she begged, for the 10th time. The sun still warmed the dusty sidewalk, California days stretching out, eager for summer vacation. Lily had stretched out, too, her legs almost as long as mine. These are the days she'll remember, I thought. We're writing the stories she'll tell her own children one day.
The chapters of her childhood should have more than trips to the park and spontaneous pizza nights, so I planned a road trip: 1,300 up the West Coast, just me, Lily and my mom. Three generations of women in one car? We need snacks and music for sure, but what music?
To help us answer that question, I started asking people to share a song that made them happy. I wanted a happy playlist full of good vibes, and I turned to friends, coworkers and complete strangers to help me build it.
People’s Responses Were Way More Moving Than I Expected
Initially, I turned to obvious sources. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins and close friends. Their responses were mixed. Some people couldn't think of a happy song off the top of their head, while others couldn't pick just one. Lily polled students at her school, adding Disney and T. Swift to the mix.
As we started running out of obvious sources to ask, I started reaching out to people I hadn't spoken to in years. They were delighted to hear from me and eager to pitch in a happy song. After I ran out of leads there, I turned to total strangers for help. That's when it got really interesting. I was thankful that my hobbit-esque stature was so non-threatening because some people were suspicious initially. I get it. We've learned not to talk to strangers, as if all of our favorite people didn't start out that way.
As people let their guard down, a silly playlist scavenger hunt took on a new meaning. I got to watch faces light up. I saw tense shoulders relax as two bickering baristas discovered they had the same taste in music. I saw a man's eyes lose focus as he traveled back to the day he was in a bar with Hall & Oates' "You Make My Dreams" playing in the background as he caught sight of the woman who'd later become his life partner.
Many of them shared their information so that I could pass along the playlist when it was done, and I realized I felt more connected to the people in my community than I had in a long time. After all, music is a language we all speak fluently. It has a way of turning strangers into friends.
Generational Differences in Music Taste Weren’t as Prominent as You’d Think
According to one study, there's a strong correlation between people's taste in music and the styles and genres that were popular when they were growing up. Musical tastes also evolve as we age, particularly around important milestones. Teenagers gravitate toward intense music, while young adults seek out mellow, contemporary tunes that align with their values. Age, social class and education all come into play, but music taste isn't as predictable as you might expect.
A 13-year-old shared that she's a huge fan of music from the '80s. A 77-year-old picked Katy Perry's "Firework" as their happy song of choice. The suggested songs were as interesting and unique as the people behind them.
Organized by generation, these are the happy songs hand-picked by 100 people between the ages of 6 and 80.
Happy Songs Picked by Gen Alpha
- Chillin' Like a Villain - Disney
- Happy - Pharrell Williams
- Don't Worry Be Happy - Bobby McFerrin
- Purple Hat - Sofi Tukker
- Brass Monkey - Beastie Boys
- What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor - Traditional
- Running Up That Hill - Kate Bush
- Party in the USA - Miley Cyrus
- Just Dance - Lady Gaga
- I’ve Got a Dream - Disney
- Heart Like a Truck - Lainey Wilson
- Astronaut in the Ocean - Masked Wolf
Happy Songs Picked by Gen Z
- I Was Made For Lovin’ You - KISS
- You Say - Lauren Daigle
- Soak Up the Sun- Sheryl Crow
- I Ain't Worried - OneRepublic
- Everything Is Embarrassing - Skye Ferreira
- Stella Brown - Jelani Aryeh
- Girls Just Want to Have Fun - Cyndi Lauper
- Uptown Funk - Bruno Mars
- Firework - Katy Perry
- Can't Stop the Feeling - Justin Timberlake
- What Makes You Beautiful - One Direction
- Do-Si-Don’tcha - Tanner Adell
- JoJo Chino Sada - Hiroaki Tommy Tominaga
- Rainbow Connection - The Muppets
- Our Song - Taylor Swift
- POP/Stars - K/DA
- Baby I Love Your Way - Big Mountain
Happy Songs Picked by Millennials
- Keep Moving - Jungle
- Rhythm of the Night - DeBarge
- Rasputin - Boney M.
- This Is Me - Greatest Showman Soundtrack
- Diggy Diggy Hole - Wind Rose
- Shake It Off - Taylor Swift
- Party - Bad Bunny
- Mundo Paralelo - Monsieur Periné
- Do You Believe in Magic - The Lovin' Spoonful
- Dancing in the Moonlight - Toploader
- Sing Out If You Want to Sing Out - Cat Stevens
- Despues de la Playa - Bad Bunny
- Lovely Day - Bill Withers
- Atmen - Jupiter Jones
- I Know What I Know - Paul Simon
- Hammer to Fall - Queen
- Volare - Gipsy Kings
- Perfect - Ed Sheeran
- Unstoppable - Sia
- Try Everything - Shakira
- I'll Be Around - Floor Cry
- Go For It - Joey B. Ellis
- I Want to Dance With Somebody - Whitney Houston
- Get the Party Started - Pink
- Everybody Talks - Neon Carnival
- Walkin' on Sunshine - Katrina and the Waves
- Permission to Dance - BTS
- Kiss of Venus - Dominic Fike
- High Hopes - Panic at the Disco
- Sea Breeze - Tyrone Wells
- Daydream Believer - The Monkeys
- How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful - Florence and the Machine
Happy Songs Picked by Gen X
- My House - Flo Rida
- Every 1’s a Winner - Hot Chocolate
- Build Me Up Buttercup - The Foundations
- Morning Train - Sheena Easton
- Bohemian Rhapsody - Queen
- Sloop John B. - The Beach Boys
- Jump Around - House of Pain
- Alive - Pearl Jam
- Toes - Zac Brown Band
- Palm Trees - Surfaces
- No Matter What - Badfinger
- That's the Way Love Goes - Janet Jackson
- Whip It - Devo
- Feelin Good - Nina Simone
- Box of Rain - The Grateful Dead
- Follow the Sun - Xavier Rudd
- Somewhere Over the Rainbow - Iz
- Honey - Mariah Carey
- Dreams - The Cranberries
- Oh Happy Day - The Edwin Hawkin Singers
- Jump - Van Halen
- Good Vibrations - The Beach Boys
- Eye of the Tiger - Survivor
- Harleys in Hawaii - Katy Perry
- Count on Me - Bruno Mars
- Dancing Queen - ABBA
- Shake It - Metro Station
- You Are My Sunshine - Traditional
- December, 1963 - Frankie Valli
- You Make Me Wanna Shout - The Isley Brothers
- Brimful of Asha - Cornershop
- Dario G - Sunchyme
Happy Songs Picked by Boomers
- The Power of the Dream - Celine Dion
- Old Time Rock & Rol l- Bob Seger
- Sugartime - Johnny Cash
- Brave - Sara Bareilles
- I Feel Good - James Brown
- Three Times a Lady - Kenny Rogers
- YMCA - The Village People
- Here Comes the Sun - The Beatles
- 93 Million - Jason Mraz
- Mr. Blue Sky - Electric Light Orchestra
- Opening - Wah
- What a Wonderful World - Louis Armstrong
Can Music Improve Our Mental and Physical Wellbeing?
As I assembled this eclectic list, the instant point of connection I built with the project's participants was the most tangible takeaway. According to science, music can do even more than that.
Music played at meaningful life events or frequently throughout a period of your life can evoke poignant feelings of nostalgia. Whether music improves memory in dementia and Alzheimer's patients is unclear, but anecdotal events suggest it does. The woman shown in this video was 92 when it was filmed and already had a dementia diagnosis, but she plays "Moonlight Sonata" from memory with ease.
Even if music can't reverse memory loss, it has been proven to improve the relationships dementia patients have with their caregivers, lowering agitation and improving communication skills. Music therapy has been used to help people with Parkinson's improve their quality of life, especially when the patients are making the music themselves.
The area of the brain that processes speech overlaps with the one that processes music. Many other areas of the brain light up while listening to music as well, including those responsible for memory, focus and motor skills. Listening to relaxing music is also just plain therapeutic. It can help alleviate pain, improve healing after surgeries, and reduce symptoms of depression.
During times of stress, music can help us cope. Lyrics that connect with our experiences turn a pair of headphones into an empathetic shoulder to lean on. Slow, relaxing music can lower heart rate and respiration, calming anxiety. Happy music can change how we perceive our lives, even the stressful days.
In short, music can help us fulfill our physical, emotional, cognitive and social needs — a discovery I stumbled upon by accident while chatting with strangers in thrift shops and gas stations about their favorite music.
A Happy Song Playlist Can Change Your Entire Day
Good music crosses cultural and generational divides. It brings us together and makes life (and family road trips) better. The next time you're feeling low, go listen to this playlist I created. It contains the sounds of 100 people's happy place. For an extra dose of mood-boosting magic, go listen to a concert in the park. If you're really brave, pull out that guitar you haven't touched since college and play it where people can hear.
I can all but guarantee two things:
1. You will make someone smile.
2. You'll find yourself smiling, too.
In the meantime, follow Playlists by the People on Spotify, and enjoy this collection of over 100 happy songs.