CHOIRS AND POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY

I go in and out of church choirs. I like to sing, but I know very little about music. I am over my head and get discouraged. The choir takes a lot of practice time, and I’d rather be sitting on the couch at home. Between being stupid and lazy, I don’t view my participation as vital.

Sally is our new choir director. Since my church is entirely run by lay, unpaid servants, the quality of choir directors varies wildly. Sally is on an extreme end of good. She needed tenors, and while I am a baritone, I can hit nearly all tenor notes. She talked me into getting back in, and it has been a great experience.

This choir teaches me. I constantly learn new things that others haven’t taught me. I learned you aren’t supposed to voice an “r” sound in the middle or end of a word. To sing “Father” or “Mother” you sing “Fathuh, muthuh.” Good choir singing sounds British, apparently. She works tirelessly on small things like that, and the result is a better choir than I have sung with in the past.

We like to learn and master new things. A popular pastime in retirement communities is taking classes. From young to old, learning and mastering is innately pleasurable.

This reminds one of Aristotle’s distinction between primary goods and secondary goods, what Hugh Nibley called “goods of first and second intent.” In modern psychology we have the terms “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” goals and activities. Getting an education might be intrinsic, if one does it out of the sheer joy of learning and mastery. Building a birdhouse is the same. There is an innate, intrinsic joy in creating something of beauty.

On the other hand, when we educate ourselves, develop skills in service of impressing our neighbors or getting ahead, these are extrinsic acts. Research has shown that intrinsic goal achievement produces happiness, extrinsic goal achievement produces a temporary flush of happiness, followed by a resurgence of hunger for more achievement. “Is that all there is?” cries the extrinsic achiever, looking around for new worlds to conquer.

While extrinsic goals are good, they are good only insofar as they help us achieve intrinsic goals. Ryan and Deci have a similar notion, external motivation that comes from others giving us rewards or punishments, and internal motivation coming from their three innate factors, feeling competent and able, feeling connected and related, and feeling independent and free. Activities that give us feelings of competence, connection, and freedom are innately rewarding.

What does any of this have to do with a choir? Fair enough, I was getting to that. Because I am learning and mastering new skills, I feel motivated. Connection is interesting, since music and choirs is a kind of ultimate connection. I remember feeling an amazing sense of joy when I was marching with hundreds of other soldiers when I was in the Army. This is like that: being unified with a group, in my case, tenors, and acting in harmony. I choose to do that, and feel I am exercising my own independence. Sally creates that environment and makes me excited to contribute.

Some other positive psychology principles I see: when we mess up, Sally doesn’t blame the choir but quickly takes accountability, “My fault, I made a mistake.” She is careful about keeping a healthy positive – to – negative ratio. “This is a treacherous part . . . no, I don’t want to say that, this is a part where you can show excellence . . .” A member of the choir made a suggestion she disagreed with. “I will take that under advisement,” she replied with a smile. A great choir director uses many positive psychology principles, perhaps instinctively.

If you think you need to find a Sally in some part of your life, you are missing the point. When and where are you Sally to a group? Whom do you inspire? Whom do you challenge and encourage? You are called to serve, and not to be served. I learned Sally takes classes on conducting, something that will never give her income but does give her a good of the first intent, mastery in service of the community. Her life means something, and so does yours. What should you be about?

By | 2016-11-26T08:55:50+00:00 August 21st, 2012|Articles, Core Happiness Skills, Enhancing Mental Health|6 Comments

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6 Comments

  1. Dr. Gayle Abbott August 21, 2012 at 12:46 pm - Reply

    Great article Dr. Johnson. Empowering others is hopefully something we educators do daily. I once had a choir leader like Sally and it made rehearsals, and performances so much more enjoyable.

  2. Dr. Timothy Nelson August 21, 2012 at 7:03 pm - Reply

    Thanks so much for the article. It gave me a real boost. I’ve just started a new position as music director in a church. Our first rehearsal is tomorrow evening.

  3. Tamara Grosz, Ph.D. August 22, 2012 at 7:39 am - Reply

    Thanks for this Dr. Johnson! My husband is in the process of developing a martial arts program for children with special needs and this was helpful to think about some of the goals within the context of this article!

  4. Ana Iosipan August 22, 2012 at 7:56 am - Reply

    Beautiful article, and I love the main anchors of positive psychology when working with a group of people. Thank you very much for sharing your experiences and ideas. Right before an interview for a new job, I read your article and inspired me to serve better if I get this job. Ana:)

  5. Dr. Christyn Sieve August 23, 2012 at 11:43 am - Reply

    I am an untrained member of my church choir. Our director is not only a super talent, but speaks fluent positive psychology. The sense of personal well-being that comes from my membership in this group is measurable in increments of pure joy. Our director’s gracious leadership generates music from hearts that radiate love as they sing together. Positive psychology on steroids if you will, maximizing the potential for joy. Thanks for making that connection.

  6. Betty Armstrong February 12, 2013 at 8:28 pm - Reply

    I love this article. Can I print it to give to others. I’m particularly interesting in
    giving it to a friend of mine who is a choir director. I am in a choir, and my
    experience is much the same as yours.
    Betty Armstrong,LCSW
    therapist for 35 years in Baton Rouge, LA.

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