Happy Choirs? The application of happiness research on choral singing

by Steven Zopfi, R & S Chair for College and University Choirs

In his zopfibook, The Happiness Advantage, author and researcher Shawn Achor disputes the conventional wisdom that they key to happiness is to work had and be successful. Instead, Achor points to recent discoveries in positive psychology and neuroscience to show that the formula is backwards. Happiness fuels success, not the other way around.

Achor has used this research to become one of the world’s most sought after business consultants. Corporations around the world have sought his advice in how to increase the happiness and satisfaction of their workers in order to increase success and boost profits.  It got me wondering that if we could adapt these strategies for choirs, how much more our choirs could achieve and how much happier our sinquotegers might turn out to be.  Who knows, we might, as conductors, even get in on this happiness thing?

To wit, Achor recommends seven distinct strategies in his book to raise happiness levels. Here is my take for their adaptation to our choral programs:

  1. The Happiness Advantage – Thinking positively, having a sense of purpose, and experiencing pleasure helps prime the brain to seek out, create, and experience happiness. The latest research in neuroplasticity shows that retraining the brain to think positively is possible at any age and happiness training can inoculate the brain and body against stress. Specific strategies include: priming the pump by thinking of happy experiences and thoughts before attempting a task, meditating, exercising, finding something to look forward to, committing conscious acts of kindness, infusing positivity into your surroundings, and spending resources on people instead of things.

    So how can we adapt these strategies for choirs? Can we start rehearsals with a positive experience?1 Perhaps it is playing music; perhaps it is planning something immediately successful or fun at the beginning of a rehearsal. Can we help our choir visualize something positive to associate with the start of a piece of music? Perhaps a few moments to enjoy quiet and silence may help our choirs center themselves and become ready for concentrated rehearsal. Certainly we can talk through our schedules and highlight upcoming events. Does kindness play a part in your rehearsal? Outside of rehearsal? Do we come into rehearsal in a positive mood? How do our moods effect rehearsal? Do we invest in our singers as people or as cogs in our musical machine? Is the choir our “instrument” or do we see each singer as a separate individual with their own aspirations and dreams.

  2. The Fulcrum and the Lever – Happiness is relative. By changing your perception of a situation (fulcrum), and by changing your belief in your abilities (lever), you can often change the outcome. We have all heard the research on student outcomes being linked to a teacher’s belief in their abilities.2  Haven’t we all had choirs live up to our expectations. Have we had choirs that also live down to them? Can we change our perceptions and our beliefs to empower our students and not limit them? Can we improve their self-expectations by our belief in their success.

  3. The Tetris Effect – Much like getting stuck in the repetitive thought processes of a video game, the mind can get stuck in any repetitive patterns for good or bad. Achor uses the example of accountants who unconsciously used their error detection skills with their spouses and children and lawyers who used their skill in framing and winning arguments with all their interpersonal relationships. Achor suggests setting up a positive Tetris effect by using lists and journaling in an effort to retrain our brains using happiness, gratitude, and optimism.

    Can we do that with choirs? You bet. We can visit other choirs and take workshops to find other ways to do things. We can focus on the positive of what we do in rehearsal and not just be an “error detector.” We can use lists and journaling to identify what is going right and what we are grateful for with our choir experience. Now, with the myriad of electronic media open to us, e-mail, electronic bulletin boards, and a whole host social media options, we can invite our choir members to join us for a group “happiness” experiment.

  4. Falling-Up – Failure is a constant in almost everyone’s life at some point. We all fail at something sometime. It is how we deal with failure that often defines us. If we view failure as a stopping point, as a dead-end, as a place to dwell, than we let failure dictate our future actions. If we welcome failure as a teaching tool, as a means for growth, then failure becomes a way forward to happiness. Achor suggests “reframing” failures by changing our perception, context and explanatory style. His prescription? Practice the ABCD model of interpretation: adversity, belief, consequence, and disputation. Identify the adverse situation. Figure out your belief about the adversity. If it is a positive consequence, fine, but if you believe in a negative consequence, challenge the negative belief by disputing the negative thought. What is the evidence for your belief? Is it fact or belief? What would be the opposite of that belief? Is there anyway to mitigate that belief, change it, or use that belief in a positive manner.

    Likewise, can we turn our failures into teaching tools? Into paths for positive growth? That disastrous performance on tour? Could we use that to motivate the choir to bring the piece up to performance level? To deal with the unexpected stress of a bad performance venue or sickness? Was the choir not prepared? Were you not prepared? Did you pick a piece that is way beyond their ability? Did you pick a piece that is too easy? Can you use your repertoire choices to foster better understanding of programming in the choir? In yourself? Turn your successes into growth engines and you can be teaching the choir a very important life lesson.

  5. The Zorro Circle – Achor uses the imagery of Zorro learning to fence by starting with mastering the space of a small circle around him as a metaphor of starting with one small change first. When faced with a seemingly overwhelmingly negative situation, instead of focusing on everything at once, Achor recommends starting with one small circle of control. In psychological studies, this has been shown to limit the fight or flight response of the limbic system and reduce anxiety.

    When faced with a choir where you don’t know where to start, or a job that seems overwhelming, start with a small circle. No vocal training, start with breathing. No idea of intonation, start with major thirds. No funding, start with one project and figure out a way to fund it. Build to your first success. This should make your second success just a little easier. It can take time, but not to start means certain failure whereas one success can often lead to spectacular results.

  6. The Twenty-Second Rule – This is a rule that is often employed by dieters and it goes like this: minimize barriers to change, common sense is not common action, turn desired actions into habits. In the dieting world the application might be to have a bowl of pre-sliced fruit and vegetables handy instead of having to take the time to cut them up every time you want a snack. Minimize barriers to change. Realize that even though you know that you are supposed to eat healthier food, that doesn’t mean you will reach for the carrots instead of the chips. So, create a system that tracks and rewards you for healthy food choices. The twenty-second rule refers to the time it takes to initiate a positive action or the time it takes to be distracted.

    In the choral world, can we define the actions we want to turn into habits (rehearsal routine, score study, etc.) minimize distractions (e-mail, cell phones, noise in rehearsal, etc.), create a system that rewards our good habits (praise thequote2 choir, limit electronic distractions, look at e-mail only twice a day, etc.…) and track positive progress? Perhaps we can create a “choir app” that tracks the positive habits of the choir?

  7. Social Investment – In their book, Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth (2008), Psychologists Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener reviewed the body of studies related to cross-cultural happiness and concluded that one of the most important components of happiness regardless of culture are social relationships.3 Increasing both the quality and quantity of social relationships has a bearing on increasing the happiness baseline of individuals. People with strong social relationship report lower blood pressure, stronger immune systems, longer life expectancies, and higher levels of productivity as well.4

    Do we do this in choirs? You bet! Choirs are a microcosm of community. They are often the first community a student joins on a college campus. They are the ones where life-long friendships often persist.  Even marriages often have their beginnings in a choir. Can we capitalize on this dynamic? Absolutely. Choir retreats and social gatherings are much more common in college choirs than ever before. How about sectional practice that is tied into a social event? Do we announce important life events for our members in choir or on choir-related social media? For that matter, do we use social media to build a sense of community in the choir? Do the choir members know each other’s names, background? Even small things, like acknowledging choir members in the hall, going to recitals, or starting the rehearsal by acknowledging recent performances or achievements builds positive social ties among the group. Choirs are tailor made to capitalize on social capital.

The burgeoning field of happiness research has led to companies such as Google, the United Parcel Service, and Starbucks to restructure their business practices. Many of these companies have reported increased levels of productivity, higher levels of worker retention, and lower levels of illness among their workers. Choral ensembles, with their strong core of community and social relationships have a built in advantage when it comes to implementing many of these strategies. Choral directors may want to incorporate many of these ideas to build higher levels of happiness among their members and their audiences.

1 Achor recommends a ratio of 6:1 positive to negative reinforcement based on the study of the “Posada Line” and productivity.  Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage (New York: Random House, 2010), 80. Are we 6 times more positive than negative or are we trained to be error detectors to point out mistakes? How does that affect our singers?

2 The most famous of these studies is Robert Rosenthal’s study of elementary teachers and students where teachers were given falsified test data that exaggerated the aptitude of certain students but told to teach everyone exactly the same. At the end of the year, the students that were falsely identified as having the most potential for growth performed significantly higher on tests than the other students. Robert Rosenthal and Leonore Jacobson, Pygmalion in the Classroom: Teacher Expectation and Pupil’s Intellectual Development (New York: Crown House, 2003).

3 As reported in Achor, Happiness Advantage, 176.

4 The positive health benefits of singing have been well-documented over the years by studies performed by researchers at the University of Frankfurt, Canterbury Christ University, George Washington University and many others.