The ‘pursuit of happiness’ is the dreamy, American idea that if ordinary people work hard to improve their lives they will be happy. Our schools encourage us from the time we’re little to “follow our dreams”. We expect happiness will happen when those dreams are achieved but it turns out that maybe that it doesn’t.
When I was very little, I remember being happy at the smallest things and hopeful about everything. As I got older, I felt the natural childish joy being extinguished as the weight of responsibility made me grow up before I really wanted to. I would escape into a book, music or various forms of creativity for moments of happiness but otherwise was passing time meeting my obligations with this future promise of happiness. “I’ll be happy when….” I wondered if losing happiness was a by-product of learning to be a responsible adult but I really didn’t want this to be true. I had this sense that happiness could be a choice in how you perceive the world and that maybe it was something that I could teach or pass on to my child or my students.
One of the reasons music became a crucial part of my life was because it was always this pocket of happiness that I could dip into. I couldn’t even really understand why it made me feel so good; I just knew that it did. I felt like there were some clues on how to be happy waiting there to be figured out. I first became aware of the Science of Happiness, reading “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi over 15 years ago. It immediately made me start making connections between the way I feel inside music and happiness in general. It seemed to lead to the conclusion that we can choose to be happy and got me to thinking that music might have a unique ability to help get us there.
The science of happiness studies what makes people happy and the results seem to be pretty consistent. People are happiest when they can be in the moment of what they’re doing and less happy when their attention is divided or the mind wanders. Psychologist and author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this phenomenon “flow”, which is a state of complete absorption within an activity where sense of time or other concerns completely go away. Others might describe this state as ‘zen’, ‘in the zone’ or ‘in the moment’.
Matt Killingsworth is a happiness scientist who studies the causes and nature of human happiness. He says in his TED talk that people are substantially less happy when they’re mind-wandering. He gathers data through a smartphone app he developed called “Track My Happiness” (http://trackmyhappiness.org). Users respond to periodic texts throughout the day and answer questions about what they’re doing and rate their level of happiness at that moment.
- How do you feel? Rate from very bad to very good.
- What are you doing?
- Are you thinking about something other than what you are currently doing (mind-wandering)?
Killingsworth says in his NPR Ted Radio Hour interview that when he analyzed data across all activities that people are universally more happy when they are fully engaged in the activity and not mind-wandering. The big question that NPR’s Guy Ross asks Killingsworth is, “How do you get to that ‘in the moment’ place?” Killingsworth’s answer: “That is the million dollar question.” At this point in the interview, I’m practically jumping up and down because I feel like I KNOW the ANSWER to this question. MUSIC!
There are some people who seem able to achieve this state easier than others. There are many activities such as gaming, sports and learning where people report achieving this state but MUSIC is unique because it also has the ability to be a FACILITATOR for getting to that ‘in the moment’ place just by listening to it. It can be the activity through the playing, practicing and learning of music or it can help get you into the mood of the activity you are doing.
Listening: If you choose music that fits the state you are trying to ‘get in the zone’ with, it puts you there effortlessly allowing you to laser-focus in on the thing that you need it for. A perfect example is exercising. Put on some heart-pumping music and you are primed and motivated to get in the zone and work out. An example at the other end of the spectrum is relaxing music that forces you to slow down and let go of the day. Pretty much any mood you want to create, you can with the appropriate musical choice. There’s an app called ‘Songza’ that curates playlists depending on mood or activity. The app’s success is based on music’s universal power to affect our moods. People have been using music to alter moods and focus concentration and involvement in activities for as long as music has existed. It’s been used in meditation, religion, war, celebration, romance, exercise, dance, film. The list goes on and on. Think about it for a moment and imagine any of these things and the music that would go with it. Then imagine those same instances without the music to go along with it. All of those things lose their immediate power to be immersive without music.
Practicing/Playing/Performing: The power to be in the moment becomes even stronger when you become involved in the doing of music. In this case the music isn’t just helping you get and keep in the groove of the activity you are doing, it is the activity. Because Music is a picture of time going by, it requires you to be in the moment or it doesn’t work. Music is a deep and diverse subject that can not be fully mastered in a lifetime allowing it to continue to provide new challenges and new excitement. Csikzentmihalyi names nine component states of achieving flow (below). The “doing” of music can easily engage all of these.
- Challenge-Skill Balance: Balance must be struck between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer. If the task is too easy or too difficult, flow cannot occur. If too difficult it results in frustration, if too easy it results in apathy. Music works well for this because it can be enjoyable to perform at many levels of difficulty yet always offers new goals, challenges and excitement. I still get just as excited about learning a new song or piece of music that I love as I did decades ago when I began learning.
- Merging of Action and Awareness: All of a person’s relevant skills are needed to cope with the challenges of a situation allowing their attention to be completely absorbed by the activity. Performing music takes a balancing act of paying enough attention to guide action while at the same time trusting muscle memory and mental memory to do it’s part.
- Clear and Compatible Set of Goals: An activity has a clear set of goals and rules for action that make it possible for the participant to act without questioning what should be done. In music, this is very clear. Music is written out with clear notation rules guiding how to read as well as theory rules describing how music works. You may have goals of improving skills and level of difficulty or being able to play specific pieces or even just to express an emotion or idea. Although there can be other goals in music, these are basic ones that universal.
- Immediate and Unambiguous Feedback: You can tell right away how well you are doing or if you are improving. In music, while practicing you get the immediate result of being able to play a piece of music or being able to play it better.
- Concentration on the Task at Hand: The clearly structured demands of the activity impose order and allows one to forget about unpleasant aspects of life or allow worries to intrude on consciousness. Music engages conscious and automatic skills at once and often emotions as well allowing the performer to lose themselves in the ‘doing’ of the music.
- Paradox of Control: The sense of exercising control in a difficult situation with a lack of worry about losing control or fear of failure. In music you can tackle a challenge and make mistakes with no major life failure or injury. You can work at it until you conquer the area where the mistake happens.
- Loss of Self-Consciousness: When an activity is thoroughly engrossing, there is not enough attention left over to allow a person to consider the past, future or be preoccupied with one’s self with distracting thoughts or irrelevant feelings. A person invests their psychic energy in part of a system that is greater than oneself which creates a sense of unity with things outside of themselves. Playing music and especially playing music with others achieves this easily.
- Transformation of Time: Person is absorbed in the ‘doing’ of the activity and loses awareness of time going by. Playing music can be so absorbing that time disappears.
- Autotelic Experience: A person performs acts because they are intrinsically rewarding, rather than to achieve external goals. Music is a perfect example of something that feels worth doing for its own sake and not for any external goal or reward.
Why does music work? Bodies naturally try to match with their environment. With music the environment is sound and it travels not just around you but through your body. The speed of the music affects our heart rate, breathing and pace of activity. We feel the sound vibrate areas throughout our bodies. Brains react to physical stimuli that trigger different regions of the brain to take control. Different areas of our brain are designed to take over depending on what is needed. Fear kicks the amygdala into gear if there is a threat with a fight or flight response. The left hemisphere of our brain takes over when we need to engage logic. The right hemisphere of our brain is the intuitive. Music seems to launch our brain into the part of our brain that lets go of time and experiences intuition and inspiration.
Dr.Jill Bolte Taylor, a Neuroscientist who suffered a left hemisphere brain stroke describes her experiences and links them with what is known about the right and left hemispheres in her book, ‘My Stroke of Insight’. One of the striking realizations she has while immersed in her right hemisphere with her left hemisphere not functioning was how she felt emotionally as time and self-preoccupation disappeared. The right side of the brain where inspiration, intuition and religious experience all live, created a sense of euphoria and transcendence. I immediately recognized the state she was describing as the state I experience when listening to music that I connect with.
Music seems to have a power to instantly transform our mood and allow us to shift to that euphoric right brain state. I believe it also is a great facilitator for getting into the state of ‘flow’ whether to be in the ‘flow’ of doing music or to enhance the ‘flow’ of some other activity. I like to call this mood-shifting. Although we can choose our actions, it is much more elusive to have control over our mood and how we feel emotionally. Mood-shifting can be used to change gears when immersed in negative emotions or as a way to work through those emotions in a healthy way. Being able to shift our mood to whatever state we need to be in to be motivated to do an activity and experience ‘flow’ is a huge advantage. This makes music uniquely qualified to aid in the pursuit of happiness. Engage music. Happiness achieved!
Founder-Treblemakers Music School
Author- Treblemakers Piano Method Series
Full Time Piano Teacher 20+ years
‘Simply Happy’ TED Radio Hour
Ted Talks ‘Dan Gilbert’
‘Flow’ by Mihalyy Csikzentmihalyi
‘Finding Flow’ by Mihalyy Csikzentmihalyi
‘My Stroke of Insight’ by Dr.Jill Bolte Taylor