How to Fix a Bad Mood, and is This the Saddest Song in the World?

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It all started last week when I forgot to take my SSRIs. You see, many years ago I was diagnosed with depression and generalized anxiety and prescribed escitalopram (known by the brand name Lexapro) to regulate it. I was very much against the idea but agreed to try it for a few weeks because my doctor at the time looked like Richard Dreyfuss and for some reason that made me want to please him, so I did it and much to my chagrin it was great. It was like I’d been living half my life under overcast skies and suddenly the sun came out.

I have to take one little pill every morning and usually I do but sometimes I screw up and just…forget. Usually not a big deal but this time I forgot for four days, which is significant. That’s why I’ve fallen a little behind on my videos this month: productivity tends to go down when I don’t want to get out of bed.

So I decided that one of my videos should be about “self care” or something, which isn’t just relevant to me but to a lot of people who are tired of being quarantined because some people don’t want to get their free vaccine or wear a god damn mask. How do we make ourselves happy when things are so shitty?

I’ve definitely tried a lot of things in the name of self-care over the past two years, like buying useless but amusing things, or eating too much, or drinking too much alcohol, or sleeping too much. But because it’s January, the month in which I attempt to right the past two months of wrongs, I’m not shopping, or overeating, or drinking any alcohol at all. I know, it’s so boring. And now I have to find new, healthier ways to self-care. I drink a lot of tea. I go for a lot of hikes. I took a bath this morning. I try to play video games.

But with the lapse in meds it’s been way tougher – like, I can’t even think of a video game that would make me happy. That’s how I know things are serious. My brain is still booting back up, and it’s having trouble making the happy hormones.

Lucky for me, a brand spanking new study came out this week called “Framing an intervention as focused on one’s strength: Does framing enhance therapeutic benefit?” I know, it doesn’t immediately scream “Get Ready for a Dopamine Explosion,” but stay with me. The press release title for the study is more promising: “The best way to fix a sad mood: Whatever you think works best.”

Psychologists at Ohio State University told 616 undergrads about two types of therapy used to treat depression: cognitive and mindfulness. Cognitive therapy is, essentially, taking a second look at why you feel the way you feel and what assumptions led you to feel that way. You can correct those assumptions to feel better and then hopefully that translates to behaving in a healthier way. I invented this. I mean, I wasn’t the first but I absolutely came up with this on my own long before I’d ever heard that it was a real therapeutic intervention. For instance, I was waiting on a subway train at rush hour after a long day of work and when it arrived, the doors opened and a woman shoved past me to be sure she could squeeze on first. I was furious! But then I stopped and tried to figure out why I was angry: I assumed she was just a bitch. But maybe she had trouble standing and desperately needed a seat. Maybe she had had a really awful day. Maybe she had missed an earlier train because it was too packed and someone shoved past her to get on. Regardless, it didn’t matter: she didn’t hurt me pushing past me, and I still got on the train. Why be angry? Once I puzzled through all that, I wasn’t anymore.

The other therapy is mindfulness, which isn’t diametrically opposed to cognitive therapy, it’s just a little different. Mindfulness is all about paying close attention to everything that’s happening around you and to how you are feeling, and why you are feeling that, without necessarily trying to change your feelings. It’s a bit more meditative: “I’m angry, and that’s understandable and okay because I’ve had a long day and I’m tired and that person was rude to me. But there’s also all this other stuff going on, like how I’m on my way home to see my cats, and I’m having dinner with a friend later on tonight, and look over there is a family visiting from another country. Life is pretty good.”

So the researchers told the students about these two ways to deal with negative emotions, and then they had them practice each one after imagining a sad thought. They then told each student that they were better at one of the two techniques, but in reality the researchers just randomly picked which technique to talk up. 

Finally, they made each student sad (more on that in a second) and then told half of them to use cognitive and the other half to use mindfulness to feel better.

Both techniques were equally good at making the subjects feel better, but the subjects had more success when they used whichever technique they were told they were better at. Even though they weren’t actually better at it. It was a filthy lie.

What’s all that mean? Well, the whole point of the study wasn’t about how to feel less sad – it was about how powerful “framing” can be when used in therapy. If someone thinks they’re good at something, that something will be more effective for them. Positive mental attitude is a real thing, yall.

The downside to learning this was realizing that when I’m trapped in a depressive cycle due to a malfunctioning brain, it’s tough to make myself believe that I can just think my way out of it, even if I could think my way out of it. It’s the Catch-22 of depression, just like I know exercise will make me feel better but getting together the energy to exercise requires some kind of force of nature. Or a very stubborn and obnoxious puppy dog who has now become accustomed to a hike every day or so.

Anyway, I don’t know, maybe someone out there will watch this and this will somehow help them, even if it wasn’t a huge help to me. This concludes the “new science” portion of today’s video. But if I’m being honest, that one small study is not why I wanted to go ahead and make this into a video. I decided to make it into a video because this study, combined with my broken brain, made me fall down a rabbit hole where I spent so long exploring that I am mentally incapable of making a video about anything else.

Remember how I said the researchers made the subjects sad? Wanna know how? So did I. Turns out, they had the subjects imagine a loved one dying, but that wasn’t sad enough so while the subject imagined that happening, the researchers played for them a song titled “Russia Under the Mongolian Yoke” at half-speed.

What? What the fuck is Russia Under the Mongolian Yoke? That was my question, at least, so I went looking. It turns out that it’s a song written for Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 film Alexander Nevsky, about the titular Russian prince who successfully fought off a 13th century invasion by Teutonic knights of the Holy Roman Empire. The film’s score was written by Sergei Prokofiev, who Western audiences may better know as the guy who wrote Peter and the Wolf. The film was so popular that he turned the score into a 40-minute cantata, which opens with Rus’ Under the Mognol Yoke, an orchestral piece that begins in C-minor to represent the destruction brought to Russia by the Mongols in 1237 when they destroyed several major cities including Moscow.

Anyway so I found the piece and I listened to it, and then I listened to it again at half speed, and sure, I guess it’s sad, but is it sadder than the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald or All By Myself? Not that I could tell. But apparently psychologists at some point decided that this was THEE sad song to play (at half-speed) if you want people to get depressed. Why? I started reading psychology papers that used it. The earliest I could find with a Google Scholar search was from 1993 but they don’t explain why they decided on it. So I checked another paper from 1999 and found that they cited a paper from 1990 called On the induction of mood, which references several studies from as early as 1983, none of which specifically mention what song they use.

So, I emailed the author of most of those papers from the 1980s, Professor David M. Clark of University of Oxford, to find out if he knew why this particular song was considered so sad.

While awaiting his reply, I searched around for research on what makes a song “sad,” and first found that researchers at UC Berkeley concluded sad music was universally sad, but then I read the study and saw they only surveyed Americans and Chinese subjects on mostly Western hits, which…is not universal. So I searched some more until I found a better study, published last summer, in which researchers played sad Western music to two remote tribes in Pakistan who had little interaction with or knowledge of such music. They found that those tribes tended to not care for “happy” Western music played in major chords and they actually preferred what we think of as “sad” songs with minor keys, probably because in their own culture songs are played in minor keys more often.

So, it’s not universal! Even if Russia Under the Mongolian Yoke is the saddest song in Russia, the UK, or the US, it’s not necessarily so sad in Pakistan, or elsewhere.
Anyway. As of this recording, I haven’t heard back from Professor Clark, which is understandable because honestly who cares about this topic besides me? But I promise that if I hear back I will let you know immediately over on my Patreon. In conclusion, if you’re on pills that control your depression and anxiety, please remember to take them every day or you, too, will get obsessed with an obscure early 20th century cantata movement and its use to science (that’s the anxiety) and then end up slightly more depressed because you’ve spent the past two days of research listening to said movement at half speed to figure out if it will make you depressed.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. We’re medication buddies it looks like. I forgot mine for 2 days, and ended up staying home from work for 2 days afterward, mostly in bed,

    (It was the weirdest thing too – I take other daily preventative medications for plenty of “middle-aged fat white guy” conditions, like diabetes, hypertension, and gout, and I didn’t miss any of those pills. Just the brain-don’t-work pills.)

  2. I have had depression meds for most of my adult life. I am now trying the Fisher Wallace Stimulator to try and find help for my circadian rhythm disorder (for which nothing is helping). I would love to have to write something about using these brain stimulating machines to help with depression etc.

  3. Hm…My SSRI experience was with Zoloft, and a brief interlude on Cymbalta. A couple of stretches of missed doses didn’t leave me sinking into obvious depression. I had such disturbing ‘brain shivers’ (also called ‘brain zaps’) that I could scarecly consider whether or not I could do anything.

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