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From Harmonies to Happiness: Choirs for Community Well-being

By on December 5, 2011 – 12:33 pm  5 Comments

Miriam Akhtar, MAPP from the University of East London, runs Positive Psychology Training, which provides courses, coaching, and communication in the science. Miriam is the author of Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression and the co-producer of The Happiness Training Plan. Twitter: @pospsychologist. Full bio.

Miriam's articles for PositivePsychologyNews.com are here.



“I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony…”

The New Seekers were definitely onto something in the seventies, for over the past year I’ve been forming a belief that singing in a choir might be one of the best positive psychology interventions around.

The Positive Power of Singing Together

The Renewal Choir

A year ago I joined a local gospel choir to put ‘sunshine into the soul’ during the long winter months, and it’s undoubtedly been one of the most powerful interventions that I’ve ever experimented with. Every time we sing in harmony I can sense the presence of a bunch of positive emotions feeding into my positivity ratio, and it seems I’m not the only one.

A friend who lectures in health psychology describes choir singing as his mental health maintenance program. Two of my coaching clients, coaches themselves, are members of choirs while others are taking singing lessons (nothing to do with me!) When Bridget Grenville-Cleave and I co-facilitate Positive Psychology Masterclasses, Bridget arrives on day 1 powered up from her Wednesday evening dose of choral singing, and I come in on day 2 boosted by my Thursday night fix. Bridget has written previously about the benefits of singing for well-being.

Choir Renaissance

In the UK, choirs are experiencing somewhat of a renaissance. Choirmaster Gareth Malone has featured in a series of moving TV reality shows where he forms choirs from unlikely populations: hard-to-reach teenage boys dispelling the myth that ‘boys don’t sing’ and recently with lonesome military wives whose husbands are away fighting in Afghanistan. There are rock choirs sprouting up across the nation singing a mix of pop, rock, soul, and gospel just for the sheer pleasure of it. There’s even a film in pre-production charting the rock choir phenomenon made by the same people who were behind Calendar Girls, and we haven’t even mentioned the sensation that is Glee.

Wearing my positive psychology hat I can see many a way in which choir singing produces well-being. If we consider the five evidence-based steps to happiness recommended by the UK’s Foresight Project on Mental Capital and Well-being, each of the five is amply fulfilled by singing in a choir.

My Choir on December 10

  1. Connect. The choir is a route into a community, a family in itself which gives you that sense of belonging, so vital for well-being especially in the individualist society that we inhabit in the West. It’s also social with choir members engaged in the common goal of engaging and entertaining an audience.
     
  2. Be Active. Being a choir member is an active form of recreation which outstrips passive leisure activities such as watching TV in its benefits for well-being. There’s the potential for flow if the level of challenge is a notch higher than your skill in the area. It also delivers an extremely good workout to your lungs and diaphragm!
     
  3. Take Notice. There is much to savor in choir singing – the blend of voices, the joy of singing as a group, and the elevation it generates. It is a transcendent experience both for the singers and audience. One of the most striking incidents for me was when we sang to prisoners in the local jail. The inmates arrived withdrawn or sporting an abundance of ‘attitude’ but by the end they were visibly different – more open, gentler, and friendlier.
     
  4. Keep Learning. Learning new things builds confidence, and it is immensely satisfying to learn something new just for the sake of it and for fun rather than for work. If you have Love of Learning as one of your top VIA strengths then you need no further persuasion! There’s also a sense of progress. I can now hold a note for twice as long as I could this time last year. My lung capacity has expanded!
     
  5. Give. Here is a great way of contributing to community well-being. A choir is social contagion in action, infecting others with a positive mood. I’ve witnessed many a time how a choir elevates a crowd, putting a Duchenne smile onto faces. If you have Curiosity amongst your strengths, then this is also a way into new social groups. We sing at neighborhood events, charity fundraisers, weddings, birthday parties, music festivals, prisons, even at the zoo.

Singing as a Hive Activity

Hive creatures

A key ingredient of the joy of choir-singing is that it involves others. Being socially active is one of the characteristics of very happy people. When Jonathan Haidt began writing The Happiness Hypothesis he believed that happiness came from within, but by the end he’d changed his mind to believe that happiness comes from the between: the relationship between yourself and others, your work, and beyond yourself.

In his new book, Haidt outlines the hive hypothesis, which describes humans as hive creatures, aping the ultra-social behavior of bees. Our groupish minds help us to cohere and co-operate. Under the right conditions we enter a mindset of “one for all, all for one,” in which we’re working for the good of the group and not just for our personal advancement. We have the ability to transcend self-interest and lose ourselves, temporarily and ecstatically, in something larger than ourselves. Choir singing is one of the ways in which to flick this hive switch.

Singing Together

So here’s an idea for a choir-based well-being intervention to send out positive ripples across a community. Stage a flash-mob, an apparently spontaneous but premeditated gathering in a public space, where people burst into song springing a surprise on those around them. Choirs have flash-mobbed around the world in shopping centers, railway stations, and airports. There are plenty of examples to inspire on Youtube.

If by any chance you’re near Bristol on Saturday 10th December, come and join us for the Renewal Choir’s Christmas concert, appropriately named Joy to the World. The clue is in the title!


 
References
 
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience.. New York: Harper Perennial.

Diener, E. & Seligman, M.E.P. (2002). Very happy people. Psychological Science, 13(1), 81-84.

Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books.

New Economics Foundation (2008). Five Ways to Well-being: The Evidence.

Here are some flash-mob links to inspire.

RTÉ Radio 1 Flash Mob Hallelujah Chorus in Dundrum Town Centre.
Christmas Food Court Flash Mob, Hallelujah Chorus
Variety Club Youth Choir Flash Mob ‘I am Australian’
Great Western Chorus flash mob Gatwick

Images

Pictures and poster from the New Renewal Choir
Hive creatures courtesy of Mink
Walking on Water Christian Church choir courtesy of Scott Schram

5 Comments »

  • Pat M. says:

    Miriam – There is something very uplifting about doing something similar with a large group of people. I have often felt it when singing the National Anthem at Yankee stadium with 40,000 other fans. I am 65 years old, and 5 years ago a friend talked me into taking tap dancing lessons. I said yes, but under no circumstances would I be in the recital. Well, after 8 months of dancing the same dances together with a class of a dozen other adults, I was easily talked into the recital. Then there were 50 of us performing the finale, and doing the same steps as we moved around the stage. It was such fun, and addictive. Five years later I will not schedule anything else on Tuesday night, and look forward to the recitals each year.

  • Great suggestion to integrate use music as positive social and emotional activity. An additional benefit of music/choiral instruction and performance may be that it encourages mindfulness.

    I teach in a high school, and think a great intervention for disengaged or disruptive students would be to assign them to a rock/gospel choir after school. Another possibility would be to teach a group of these students to conduct (you must feel the music – mindfulness).

    Do you know if there has been empirical research in this area, Miriam?

  • dear Miriam,
    I can only agree with you – from my own experience. 25 years ago I visited a chanting group in Berlin, feeling rather low. When I left 2 hours later, I was completely transformed, happy, humming and uplifted. So I got involved – and ended up leading the group. I am convinced, that the human voice somehow connects us with our soul.
    5 years later I was introduced to the “Dances of Universal Peace“, where people are chanting – and moving together while singing. This is like adding another dimension to the magic which can unfold while chanting: the whole body, or better: the whole being is involved in this wonderful creative way of self expression.
    As an additional benefit usually self esteem and confidence increase. Also the human touch when holding hands or looking at each other is so much more fulfilling than gazing into a computer screen. And the strange thing is: when you add body movements to the singing, you learn more easily! and when you are busy with sorting out the dance steps, people forget that they thought they can’t sing…
    This joyful activity is actally an effective way to get out of your mind: you have to be “here and now”; many consider this chanting while moving in a circle as an alternative spiritual practice.
    Especially for beginners who are too shy or not confident enough to join a choir, the Dances of Universal Peace provide an excellent opportunity to get into singing. Dance circles are normally open for everyone to drop in, and they are shared in around 30 countries all over the world.
    Check http://www.dancesofuniversalpeace.org – or search the web.
    Ralph Nimmann, Cambridge / UK

  • Hi guys, I agree that dancing together has similar positive benefits to singing together. Jonathan Haidt in his new book The Righteous Mind refers to raves as flicking the hive switch.

    Kevin, there’s some empirical research on the Chorus America website – http://www.chorusamerica.org/about_choralsinging.cfm

    ‘Chorus America first evaluated the benefits of choral singing and its impact on communities… The results from this latest research support and advance earlier findings that choral singers exhibit increased social skills, civic involvement, volunteerism, philanthropy, and support of other art forms, when compared with non-singers.’

    And also at the University of Christchurch Canterbury in the UK has recently completed a systematic review of the effects of singing on health –
    http://www.canterbury.ac.uk/Research/Centres/SDHR/Home.aspx

    Miriam

  • Angus Skinner says:

    This is lovely Miriam.

    I presume you have seen some of the inspirational The Choir series with Gareth Malone see http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b008y125.

    I used to sing in choirs but have been travelling too much. In one the Director of the Edinburgh Science Festival joined us (we sang openly). I asked her why she had come and she said, ‘Well, I have been reading all this research that shows people with religious beliefs live longer. And I thought maybe it is just because they get to sing more often.’

    Who knows. But in this coming together of arts and science we see the futures of the century don’t you think?

    Best aye
    Angus

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