Choirs for Well-being
‘I’d like to teach the world to sing.’ The New Seekers were definitely onto something when they sang about ‘wanting to teach the world to sing’ for I’ve come to the conclusion that singing in a choir might be one of the best pathways to happiness.
The Positive Power of Singing Together
Two years ago I joined a local gospel choir to put some ‘sunshine into the soul’ during the long winter months and it’s turned out to be one of the most powerful ways to well-being that I’ve ever tried. Every time we sing I can sense the arrival of a host of positive emotions filling my reservoir of positivity and resilience and it seems I’m not the only one.
A friend who lectures in health psychology describes choir singing as his mental health maintenance programme. Two of my coaching clients, coaches themselves, sing choirs while others are taking singing lessons (nothing to do with me!) When I co-facilitate Positive Psychology Masterclasses with Bridget Grenville-Cleeve, she arrives on day 1 powered up from her Wednesday evening choral singing while I come in on day 2 boosted by my Thursday night gospel fix.
Gareth Malone has turned choir singing into a type of therapy forming choirs from unlikely populations: hard-to-reach teenage boys challenging the myth that ‘boys don’t sing’ and lonesome military wives whose husbands are away fighting in Afghanistan.Rock choirs are sprouting up across the nation singing for the sheer pleasure of it. There’s even a film in pre-production charting the rock choir phenomenon made by the same team who were behind Calendar Girls, and we haven’t even mentioned the sensation that is Glee.
Wearing my positive psychology hat I can see how singing in a choir makes you happy. If we consider the Government-endorsed five ways to well-being, each of the five is fulfilled in a choir.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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
A key part 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.
And what about putting this into practice to send positive ripples across a community. One idea is to stage a flash-mob – an apparently spontaneous but premeditated public gathering. Choirs have flash-mobbed around the world in shopping centres, railway stations and airports. Check out youtube for inspiration.
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.