Today’s title is a quote by the psychologist William James (1842-1910), in which he foreshadows the current interest in singing for psychological wellbeing. Singing to improve our mood has a long history, and seems to be an instinctive response which can help us to deal with emotionally difficult situations. On May 17th 2018 The Telegraph published a reader’s memories of wartime nights spent in an air-raid shelter:
‘At first we just sat on the benches, wearing our gas masks, for what seemed like hours at a time. Then the headmaster decided that singing would help morale – “White Cliffs of Dover”, “There’ll Always Be an England” (!!) and “Roll Out the Barrel”. I can still remember the words. I suppose in retrospect there was not very much else the headmaster could do. He knew we were afraid in case we found our homes and families had been destroyed in our absence – sadly, in some cases, that was a fact’.
Even if singing is the last thing we feel like doing, it can help to lift our spirits, as the English clergyman, Charles Spurgeon, discovered: ‘Sometimes, if you begin to sing in a halfhearted mood, you can sing yourself up the ladder. Singing will often make the heart rise’
When I was very young, I got up early one morning and found my grandmother in the kitchen, singing as if her life depended on it. ‘You must be happy today’, I innocently stated. ‘I’m not happy at all,’ she snapped, ‘That’s why I’m singing – to make myself feel better!’ I never found out why this was necessary on that particular day, but grandma’s pragmatic response to her bad mood was a useful lesson for me.
Immersing ourselves in singing works as a mood enhancer partly because it creates a state of ‘flow’* or ‘being in the zone’. A ‘flow’ activity has its own intrinsic rewards and is enjoyable for its own sake. It is totally absorbing and makes us concentrate on the present moment. Achieving a state of ‘flow’ can help us to shake off our usual self-consciousness, and to fully experience the high points in our life, sometimes referred to as ‘peak’ or ‘optimal’ experiences’. ‘Flow’ can distract us from our everyday concerns to the extent that we lose track of time (and everything else!) as the jazz singer, Sarah Vaughan found: ‘When I sing, trouble can sit right on my shoulder and I don’t even notice’.
Yesterday, the mother of one of my singing students told me that her daughter ‘always enjoys your lessons. Sometimes I send in a moody teenager and she comes out smiling and happy’. And hearing that made me feel happy too!
*More information about Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of ‘flow’ can be found here