Singing and Happiness

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We all know that singing makes people happy, but do we know why? Is there any way that we can guarantee the singers we work with get the most out of the experience every time?

The authors of Mind Gym: Give me Time offer a useful analysis of happiness. They suggest that it operates in three dimensions, pleasure, challenge and meaning. Any activity that offers one of these will make us somewhat happy, one that offers two will feel very rewarding, and to get all three in one go leads to a state of rapture.

So let’s look at each of these, and see where we can find it in our rehearsals.

  1. Pleasure is in many ways the easiest to understand, and is the most basic form of happiness. But let’s not underestimate the value of simple things! Here are some of the most obvious pleasures we can find in rehearsal:
    • The physical pleasure of shedding the day’s tensions in a warm-up
    • The invigorating and refreshing feeling of breathing deeply
    • The delight in musical beauty
    • The acoustic pleasure of feeling our voices blend with others'
  2. The importance of challenge for happiness has been well documented by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his classic book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. I wrote in some detail about how this applies to musical performance over on Owning the Stage last winter. Here we just need to note that people feel happier when they have achieved something that required them to extend themselves. Doing easy stuff is boring; doing impossible stuff is frustrating; doing things that are slightly scary but within our grasp is exciting.
  3. Meaning is the third dimension of happiness: that sense of participating in something of significance. People bring all sorts of their own meanings along to choir: they care about the social contact, or about the musical tradition, or the chance to communicate through performance. But we can help our singers experience that deepest layer of happiness, of feeling that they are contributing to something bigger than themselves, if we consciously develop and share a vision for the choir. What is its purpose? What can it offer to the world that is unique and special?

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