The lost art of joy – Music

With only five days to go before Christmas, most people are rushing into the shops to purchase those last minute items.

The average shopping centre in the pre-Christmas week is an auditory and visual cacophony. Not only are there people EVERYWHERE, there are fairy lights, baubles, and tinsel everywhere! Then there are those Christmas carols, the auditory froth of tinny Christmas melody bubbling incessantly in the background. It’s all enough to make you want to shop on-line.

It’s such a shame the way Christmas carols have been subjugated and exploited for commercial gain. So many of the old Christmas carols are euphonious in their own right, with a lyrical profundity that encapsulates the deeper meaning of Christmas in just a few words.

In fact, music in general is fundamental to us as a language of emotion. The linguist Steven Pinker once said that music was “auditory cheesecake,” a purposeless byproduct of language development. But music is deeper than language. Neuroscience suggests that we’re hardwired to interpret and react emotionally to music from before we’re able to crawl, and well and truly before we develop language. Music activates most of our brain, from our frontal lobe and temporal lobe to process the sounds across both sides of the brain. Music also activates our visual cortex, our motor cortex, our memory centres and, not surprisingly, our deep emotional brain centres. It’s only if the song has lyrics that our language processing areas are activated.

Music has been shown to affect our physical bodies and our minds. Music helped to reduce blood pressure, heart rate and anxiety in heart disease patients, while upbeat music can have a very positive effect on our emotional wellbeing, so long as the music was happy and upbeat. Music that we expect to be happy also results in an increase of dopamine, the neurotransmitter of pleasure.

So the emotional connection that music carries is very important for our overall joy.

Listening to music can increase our joy. While the research supports the improvement in mood that comes from listening to happy, upbeat music, there’s a place for ‘sad’ or ‘angry’ songs too, which can connect directly to our souls and provide a type of catharsis that goes beyond trying to express our emotions through the clunky limitation of speech.

Music can help to scaffold memories, especially emotional memories. Remember the music playing when you had your first kiss? Or the song that they played at a friends funeral? Playing those songs related to happy times in your life can help you to recall and re-experience those uplifting emotions if you’re feeling down.

Music creates opportunities for healing. Hospitalised children were happier during music therapy (in which all the children were involved and could play with simple musical instruments like maracas and bells while a leader played the guitar) than they were in standard play therapy when their options puzzles and toys.

But more than anything, music increases joy through the power of human connection. Music is emotionally deeper than language and the social bond that music can create between people is much stronger than any intellectual or verbal connection. There have been numerous studies that demonstrate this – people who go to concerts and who go dancing report higher levels of subjective wellbeing than those people who listen to music on their own. People who create music together have higher levels of happiness and find other activities more pleasurable overall, an effect which has been demonstrated in groups of both adults and school children.

So if you want to increase your joy, engage with music, and use music to engage with other people … even if it is singing Christmas carols.

Advertisements

The lost art of joy – Adversity

If we were to believe the average Pinterest quote, it’s easy to be happy.

“Positive mind, Positive Vibes, Positive Life”.
“I choose to be happy”.
“Why be moody when you can shake yo booty”.

Yep, easy right. Positively choose to turn on the light and shake yo booty, and you will have joy.

But we know from life experience that it isn’t always easy to have joy. It’s easy when times are good, when things are going in your favour.

It’s not so easy when things are difficult or times are tough – when you’re sick, when you’re broke, when you’re alone, when you’re stressed and stretched to your limit.

We all encounter adversity at some in our lives, and it’s through those times of personal difficulty that we usually grow the most, although it never feels like that at the time.

When times are difficult, we can still experience joy. Occasionally Pinterest has some pertinent quotes – “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times if one only remembers to turn on the light”. It might be hard to see the joy in times of darkness and difficulty, and sometimes we just need to shine a little bit of light into the situation to see some of the joy around us.

One of the most profound examples of this was that of Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who survived three years in Nazi concentration camps. He lived through some of the most inhumane depravity that a human being could be forced to endure, and that experience helped him understand that circumstances did not necessarily determine someone’s experience of joy, but that even in the midst of suffering, a person could still find beauty and meaning.

In “Man’s search for meaning”, he wrote:

We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”

That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which Man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of Man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when Man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position Man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”

Even in the midst of hostility, hate and hardship, Frankl and those around him engaged in unity, comradery, understanding of beauty and the memory of love. The human spirit can not be suppressed by external conditions. As Frankl also wrote,

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Modern psychology has helped to explain what it is that contributes to happiness and joy. Sonja Lyubomirsky and her colleagues once published that intentional actions can contribute as much as 40% to a person’s feeling of happiness, where as circumstances could only contribute 10%.

This work wasn’t without it’s criticism, but it does make two pertinent points.

The first thing and most important for today is that our happiness is less about what’s going on around us and more about what we do.

Yes, adversity does make joy more difficult to experience, but not impossible.

Don’t allow life to beat you down. See the joy that is beyond your circumstances.

The second point? Even accounting for their generous assumptions, if up to 40% of our happiness is related to our actions, then more of our happiness is dependent on things beyond our control, like our genes and our circumstances.

What happens when you’ve done everything you can to maximise your joy and you’re still struggling? We will discuss this in more detail tomorrow.