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?