The Rise of the “Mental Health Playlist,” And How to Make One

Whether it's Spotify's "Daily Wellness" or a hand-picked mix, more people are streaming as a form of self-care

November 3, 2020 7:29 am
mental health playlists
What songs soothe you when you need to relax?
Mike Falco

At this point, calling 2020 a rough year is an almost-comical understatement. Between a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands and kept us away from friends and loved ones for eight months to wildfires, civil unrest and what’s sure to be one of the most divisive elections in modern history, most of us have had to endure more stress and grief than we ever thought was possible to cram into 365 days.

It’s no wonder, then, that we’ve been looking for ways to decompress wherever we can find them. As Spotify announced last month, the pandemic has led to a massive rise in streams of “mental health playlists” on its platform, with playlists related to “mindfulness,” “calm” and “self-care” seeing a 57 percent increase in streams from last year. Podcasts related to self-help and self-care also saw a dramatic bump on the platform, with a whopping 122-percent increase in streams. We’re all clearly in need of something soothing to listen to these days.

Of course, what exactly constitutes a “mental health playlist” is slightly less clear. Every mind is different — both when it comes to personal taste and actual brain chemistry — and what one person finds relaxing another may find to be grating. Some of us may turn to guided meditation to unwind, while others may gravitate toward a playlist of soothing new-age ones from the likes of Enya and Yanni. Maybe ambient instrumentals are what get you feeling zen, while death metal might feel like a cathartic release to someone else. How, then, do you come up with a mental health playlist that appeals to everyone?

If you’re Spotify, you rely on a mixture of your algorithm and curation. The streaming service offers a personalized “Daily Wellness” playlist for users (located under the “Made For You” menu) that features feel-good songs recommended for you based on what you’ve listened to in the past, along with clips from motivational or wellness-oriented podcasts like Yoga Girl Daily and Daily Quote or poetry from The Slowdown mixed in to help you clear your mind. The playlist — which made its debut back in April — is updated twice a day, with the morning mix focused more on empowering listeners to get up and conquer the day and the evening edition devoted to helping them wind down, relax and get ready for a peaceful night’s sleep.

Like most of Spotify’s “Made For You” playlists, what you get from “Daily Wellness” is dictated mostly by your listening habits, so the chances are strong that you’ll find some tunes you like. (Although algorithms aren’t perfect, and occasionally a song you love that isn’t necessarily uplifting sneaks in, like when Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” appeared on my Daily Wellness playlist yesterday. It’s a classic, but a song about a failed marriage by a guy who famously killed himself doesn’t exactly scream “wellness.”) The podcast clips peppered in by Spotify are a little more hit-or-miss because they’re not catered to the individual; whether or not they resonate will likely depend on whatever the day’s chosen subject matter happens to be.

With that in mind — as well as the fact that we all are certainly going to need a few moments to step away from the TV tonight, do some deep breathing and try to stay calm — we’ve put together our own relaxation playlist for you below. It’s got a little bit of everything: some sprawling, gorgeous numbers from Sigur Rós and Phosphorescent; some more uptempo tracks offering words of encouragement like “You Can Make It If You Try” and “This Will Be Our Year;” some sad songs that provide comfort nonetheless, whether it’s John Prine reminding us that even after an unspeakable tragedy like a boy getting hit by a train, “a heart stained in anger grows weak and grows bitter/You’ll become your own prisoner as you watch yourself sit there/Wrapped up in a trap of your very own chain of sorrow,” or Father John Misty warning us that “When the God of Love Returns, There’ll Be Hell to Pay” but still bowling us over with a line like “The spider spins his web/The tiger stalks his prey/And we steal fire from the heavens to try to keep the night at bay.”

It’s hard not to think about that last one now that we’re in early November and Christmas decorations are already cropping up. The bright lights and festive adornments have always been a way to add a little warmth and joy to what’s always one of the darkest, coldest times of the year, but this year it feels like we need them more than ever. So if seasonal affective disorder and everything else from this nightmare year have you feeling a little more anxious than usual, give these tracks a spin or two. Hopefully you’ll find comfort in them the way we do.

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