I´m a big fan of the non-profit Action for Happiness and have written on their work multiple times in the past. Today, I´d like to share with you another of their awesome tools, helping to bring Positive Psychology to the general public. Enjoy!
MAPP is a fulltime program – but combines onsite classes with long-distance learning periods. Part of the distance learning comprises a lot of reading (…who would have thought of that…) and writing essays about a wide array of positive psychology topics. I´ve decided to post some of those essays here on Mappalicious. Surely, they´re not the be-all and end-all of academic writing. But then again, it would also be a pity to bury them in the depths of my laptop…
The sentence displayed in the title is a well-known proverb in Germany. I could not find a passage with that exact meaning directly in the Bible. Therefore, it seems to be more of a piece of folk wisdom. Mostly, one is inclined to use it situations where one is subjected to, by way of example, a piece (or genre) of music that one does not like – but that is highly appreciated by other people. It is a way of acknowledging that people have different tastes in just about anything – and that one “is fine” with that.*
In that sense, it has some shared meaning with the English figure of speech “different strokes for different folks”. While I am writing these sentences, there´s a portrait of Michael Wendler on TV, a leading protagonist of German “Schlagermusik”, a particularly corny, banal, uniform, and (to my ears) horrible style of pop music that sells really well and is played at most parties at some point or the other. For the most part of my life, I have enjoyed music that is often considered to be at the opposite end of the musical spectrum: heavy metal. In this essay, I would like to muse about this phenomenon: Why are people drawn to different kinds of music (and art in general) – and what does this phenomenon have to say about human well-being?
The question of how to lead a good life is a very old one. Religious leaders, philosophers, authors and laymen alike have tried to find answers to this mystery. At earlier stages of this quest, it was mostly put into question that feeling happy and experiencing positive emotions is an essential part of a life well-lived. Yet, with the appearance of the Enlightenment (at the latest), the pursuit of happiness can be seen as a central element of this overall endeavor (McMahon, 2008). Nowadays, there is convincing scientific evidence for the link between positive emotions and (psychological) well-being (Fredrickson, 2001).
For at least as long as people have pondered on the meaning of human life – and the question if (and how) the pursuit of happiness can play a role in finding the right answers – they have immersed themselves in art. Primitive forms of musical instruments, paintings, and pieces of stoneware have appeared at least 30,000 years before our time. Nowadays, due to its easy and ubiquitous availability, music may be the most widespread form of art (at least it seems to be most widely used). In a study using experiencing sampling, a method where subjects are to record what they do in their lives at certain intervals, it was found that music was present in 37% percent of the samples; and that this music influenced the emotional state of the listeners in 67% of these events (Juslin, Liljeström, Västfjäll, Barradas, & Silva, 2008).
The last-mentioned number hints to a possible explanation for the immense pervasiveness of music: it is a potent means for regulating affect. Listening to music can lift our mood, alleviate psychological stress as well as physical pain, and contribute to our overall well-being (Västfjäll, Juslin, & Hartig, 2012). This may be a consequence of the uplifting effect of listening to music, but could also be a byproduct of its social aspect, since it is often performed and listened to in the presence of other human beings (MacDonald, Kreutz, & Mitchell, 2012). Additionally, making and listening to music is able to induce flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996). For all these reasons, it is also used in a wide array of psychotherapeutic settings (Västfjäll, Juslin, & Hartig, 2012).
The introductory paragraph of this essay alludes to the fact that different people like to listen to different styles of music. Therefore, what brings pleasure, uplift, and well-being to one person may result in anger and unpleasantness for another. This may be a consequence of learning and a kind of “cultural conditioning”, but could also be explained by more basic psychological (even psycho-physiological) phenomena. Västfjäll, Juslin, & Hartig (2012) list several aspects that could account for music´s propensity to be a medium of mood control. Among them are
Since different people obviously have different nervous systems (e.g., in terms of responsivity and sensibility) it seems self-evident that they should react more or less favorably to varying styles of music. Maybe, it is not even a choice that we make consciously.
One of my favorite movies of all time is Gerry Marshall´s “Pretty Woman” (1990). There is a scene where the male main protagonist, successful businessman Edward Lewis (played by Richard Gere), invites the female mail protagonist, prostitute Vivian Ward (played by Julia Roberts), to the San Francisco Opera to see a premier of “La Traviata”. When Vivian is very moved by the music, Edward says:
People’s reactions to opera the first time they see it is very dramatic; they either love it or they hate it. If they love it, they will always love it. If they don’t, they may learn to appreciate it, but it will never become part of their soul.
From my own experience, I feel that I know very well what Edward is talking about. Only, in my case, it wasn´t opera but heavy metal. I was exposed to this style of music for the first time at age 14, specifically a song by the German metal band Helloween. They are considered to have established their own sub-genre in 1985 which can be characterized by the following attributes:
I remember my parents saying that heavy metal would be a “phase” I was going through – but so far, time has proved them wrong. I still love it and probably will do so until the end of this life. Of course I do listen to other music. I went to an opera premier of “Don Giovanni” in March of 2013, and I also enjoyed listening to Tschaikowski and other Russian composers when we went to an evening at the Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchestra as part of the MAPP program in January 2014 – but honestly speaking, classical music will (most likely) never captured my heart the way that heavy metal has done. I know that one can learn to appreciate classical music in the same way that one has to learn how to appreciate good wine – but to me, that´s not the same as “falling in love” with a particular style of music.
There is not much official (psychological) research on heavy metal. Yet, because of the above-mentioned attributes, it is oftentimes described as the most aggressive style of music. Following that notion, most of the few studies that do exist typically deal with supposed negative consequences (or correlates) of listening to heavy metal, such as aggressive behavior, suicidal risk, drug abuse, and low self-esteem (e.g., King, 1998; Arnett, 1992; Scheel & Westefeld, 1999). I am trying hard not to be lopsided here – but to me there seems to be something wrong about these studies. Heavy metal is – for the most part – aggressive music, agreed. But this does not automatically imply heavy metal fans are aggressive people. I have been to hundreds of concerts in my lifetime. From these experiences, I can say that heavy metal concerts are distinctly peaceful and non-violent places. My observation is echoed by one of those rarer studies that finds metal fans are just regular people that happen to feel good while listening to high-intensity music (Gowensmith & Bloom, 1997). The study concludes by stating that the
[…] most widely accepted conclusion is that heavy metal fans are in general angrier, more agitated, and more aroused than fans of other musical styles. The results of this study do not support this speculation. No […] differences were found among subjects’ levels of state arousal, state anger, or trait anger. (p. 41)
Instead, the researchers were able to detect an interaction effect. In fact, there were people in their sample that got overly aroused and even aggressive when listening to heavy metal: precisely, persons that stated they do not like heavy metal (especially fans of country music). For fans of metal music, listening to their favorite music did not result in elevated levels of arousal or negative emotion – quite the contrary. This finding is mirrored in an article on the internet site of the magazine “The Atlantic” by the name of Finding Happiness in Angry Music (Sottile, 2013). The author concludes that potentially there is “something cleansing about engaging with emotions we might not usually let ourselves feel”. Hence, music does not necessarily have to be happy in order to make us happy – and foster our well-being. It all comes down to “different strokes for different folks” again. In their review article on the connection of music and well-being, Västfjäll, Juslin, and Hartig (2012) draw a similar conclusion when making the point that music as a stimulus cannot be the same for all listeners:
Thus, there are no “pure” effects of music that will invariably occur regardless of the specific listener or situation. The response will depend on factors such as the listener´s music preferences and previous experiences, as well as on the specific circumstances of the context. (p. 408)
As a consequence, I feel we should be careful to make (too) strong judgments about other people´s taste in music (and art in general). Ever so often, many ways lead to Rome. I oppose to the distinction that is often made between “serious music” (sometimes called “art music”) and the more “popular” styles of music that also comprise heavy metal. The aspect of seriousness is inherent in the listener, not the music itself. One can listen to Mozart carelessly – while savoring heavy metal and thereby displaying a great amount of mindfulness.
The garden of the Lord is vast and plentiful. In order to find happiness, I believe, we must find our personal parcel of land in that garden – and then start to cultivate it.
Arnett, J. (1992). The Soundtrack of Recklessness Musical Preferences and Reckless Behavior among Adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Research, 7(3), 313-331.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihály (1996). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York: Harper Collins.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56(3), 218-226.
Gowensmith, W. N., & Bloom, L. J. (1997). The effects of heavy metal music on arousal and anger. Journal of Music Therapy, 34, 33-45.
Juslin, P. N., Liljeström, S., Västfjäll, D., Barradas, G., & Silva, A. (2008). An experience sampling study of emotional reactions to music: listener, music, and situation. Emotion, 8(5), 668-683.
King, P. (1988). Heavy metal music and drug abuse in adolescents. Postgraduate Medicine, 83(5), 295-301.
MacDonald, R., Kreutz, G., Mitchell, L. (2012). What is music, health, and wellbeing and why is it important? In R. MacDonald, G. Kreutz, & L. Mitchell (Eds.), Music, health and wellbeing (pp. 3-11). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Marshall, G. (1990): Pretty Woman [Film]. Los Angeles, Touchstone Pictures.
McMahon, D. M. (2008). The pursuit of happiness in history. In M. Eid & R. J. Larsen (Eds), The science of subjective well-being (pp. 80-93). New York: Guilford Press.
Scheel, K. R., & Westefeld, J. S. (1999). Heavy metal music and adolescent suicidality: An empirical investigation. Adolescence, 34, 253–273.
Sottile, Leah (2013). Finding happiness in angry music.
Västfjäll, D., Juslin, P. N, Hartig, T. (2012). Music, subjective wellbeing, and health: The role of everyday emotions. In R. MacDonald, G. Kreutz, & L. Mitchell (Eds.), Music, health and wellbeing (pp. 405–423). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
* Mostly though, the phrase will be accompanied by an incredulous shake of the head, thereby signifying that, at the end of the day, one´s own taste is to be valued higher.
In general, I hate this sentence – but: time flies.
Right now, I´m in Philly, precisely: in room 340 of Wharton´s Huntsman Hall, for attending the final onsite period of the 2013/14 MAPP program at University of Pennsylvania. Seems like yesterday that I wrote that blog post on being admitted to my deep–dive into Positive Psychology at UPenn. Maybe it´s still a little bit early for reminiscence, since there´s still a lot of work ahead (final papers, capstone projects) – but lately, I´ve been musing on a truly intriguing question:
That question only makes sense when you´re German, of course – which I happen to be. My MAPP classmates surely know I´ve been using this definition a lot over the year: un-German. What do I want to say here?
Despite that disreputable first half of the twentieth century, I kind of like being German. According to most socio-economic (and also ecologic) indicators, it´s a very good place to live. Hey, according to BBC we might even the most popular country in the world. Go figure!*
But what do other countries like or maybe even admire about Germans? Let´s look at some of the (pretty thoroughly verified…) stereotypes:** People definitely love our cars (and the fact that there´s no speed-limit on most areas of the Autobahn), they indulge in our Bier, Schnaps, and Riesling-Wein (especially around the time of the Oktoberfest – which I´ve never visited by the way…), our ten trillion varieties of Wurst and the Schnitzels (although the original Wiener Schnitzel is from Austria, of course). So generally speaking, people like our products. They love things “Made in Germany”.
Because that´s what we´re good at. Germany has an “engineering culture”. We´re good at planning things and following through with it, that´s our Prussian heritage. We´re builders and craftsmen, planners and executors, not so much “poets and thinkers” any more. We´re industrious, punctual, orderly, dependable, and basically good at “being good at things”.
Rather not on top of the list is “the German” as a person(ality). Most other countrymen consider us to be blunt to the point of outright rudeness – if we´re talking at all, that is. We´re not the epitome of warm-heartedness, either (that may be a result of our language). And while Germany typically is considered to be the “export world champion”, our humor definitely is not one of our hit products.
Additionally, we´re just not a very optimistic people. I mean, compared to most other countries, we´re really really rich and really really healthy and long-living. We´re well-off – period. Still, collectively we´ve managed to have a special kind of fear being named after us: “German Angst” (roughly: being overly cautious and pessimistic). Oh, and we´re also good at feeling Weltschmerz – which can be described as the state of “being pissed off with existence in general and also in particular”.
So on the face of it, trying to be a good German and studying Positive Psychology (here´s a short definition) does not add up. At the end of the day, Positive Psychology is just too … ahem … positive. Rather, a German in a Positive Psychology course seems like a prototypal case of “opposites attract”.
Yet, in spite of it all, I did it. And here´s what I´ve learned…
In Germany, most people opt for a solid handshake when greeting somebody they do not know that well. Among younger people and goods friends, you’ll also see the occasional hug or that “kiss-kiss embrasser thing” we copied from our French neighbors.
In MAPP, people hug each other at all times. Basically, our bodies are completely entangled while being on campus. Was a little strange at first – but then I´ve found this piece of research that shows how important hugs are for our health.
In Germany, when meeting somebody again after several weeks, of course you´ll engage in some microscopic dose of small-talk. E.g., when somebody asks you “How was you flight?”, you´re supposed to reply something like this: “Oh, it was the worst thing ever. There was a delay of at least five minutes. And they didn’t have Becks beer on board. I did not get the window seat I wanted and the food servings were tiny. The guy next to me smelled like a dead rodent and I had already seen all of the HIMYM episodes they showed on board.” The other person will then reply: “Oh, I know exactly what you´re saying. It´s been even worse for me…………..”
In MAPP, when people ask how your flight was, you´re supposed to say “Awesome!” That´s it. And the other person will respond: “That´s awesome. Let me give you a hug…”
Was a little strange at first – but then I´ve found this piece of research that shows how mostly looking on the bright side of life is really beneficial for your psychological and physiological well-being.
In Germany, when you take a break (which we don´t do that often), you basically stop doings things. Maybe, you have a piece of Streusel-Kuchen, maybe you check your mobile phone for messages. And if you meet a German who is one of those rare positive outliers on extraversion, you might be able to get him engaged in a little small-talk – but don´t count on that.
In MAPP, when you take a break, you´re not allowed to sit down and just do nothing. Because breaks are supposed to be “energy breaks”. So basically, somebody will walk up front, put on some music that is not Rammstein, and then coerce all the other people in the room into frenetic singing and shouting, and moving their bodies in distinctly inappropriate ways. Afterwards, you return to your seat. But before that, you hug.
Was a little strange at first – but then I´ve found this piece of research that shows how taking short breaks from work for dancing is really good for your health and gets so creative juices flowing
In Germany, when somebody asks you a (“complicated”) question, you answer. That´s it. If you don´t want to do something or disagree, you just say “Nein!” or “That´s not a good idea.” Works out fine.
In MAPP, when somebody asks you a (“complicated”) question, you´re supposed to say something like this: “Oh, that is a truly brilliant question (break into huge smile while speaking…). I really appreciate it. It´s just so thoughtful and deep. I could have never come up with that in a million years. By the way, I just love your hair today. So, about your question…”
When you want to say “No” to somebody, or “I think that´s a bad idea” things get a little more complicated. Because: You can´t. It´s sort of “not allowed”. So instead, you might want to start with something along the lines of the above-mentioned phrases. Now, proceed by putting on a (just slightly) less smiling face and say, e.g.: “Let me give you a little bit of context on that.”*** Then, in excruciating length and detail, you recount each and every item of information that may or may not be relevant to the current affair, starting roughly at Lincoln´s “Better Angels of our Nature” address. And basically, you keep on going until the other person has forgotten what she wanted in the first place. Afterwards, you hug.
Was a little strange at first – but then I´ve found this piece of research that shows how important it is to really be empathetic towards other people, and to engage in (what Positive Psychologists call) active-constructive responding.
In Germany, when you´ve finished something, you start doing something else immediately (except for when we want to practice the art of Gemütlichkeit – but hey: drinking beer is also doing something…). That´s what we´re here for. We do stuff. We finish it. We do something else. I mean, one of the largest chains of building centers in Germany advertises the slogan “Es gibt immer was zu tun…” (“There´s always something to do…”).
In MAPP, when you´ve finished something, you cannot do something else immediately. Nohoo! Somebody will walk up to you and ask you to savor what you´ve just did. So you might have been to the rest room, reenter the classroom – and somebody will approach you and ask: “Nico, did you take enough time to savor that experience?” Not.
But savoring really is a big issue in MAPP. Now, that is really really un-German. I´ve understood that it´s close to the concept of being “gemütlich”, just (mostly…) without beer. Basically, it´s the opposite of feeling Weltschmerz. It´s about back-pedaling, admiring your recent accomplishments, and giving yourself (and the world in general…) a mental pat on the back – and a hug.
Was a little strange at first – but then I´ve found this piece of research that shows how taking your time to savor life and the beautiful things (and maybe even some of the not so beautiful things…) it entails is really important for our well-being and finding meaning in life.
So, that´s what I´ve learned. Here´s the management summary:
Wherever you are, it is your friends who make your world.
Alternatively, in the words of Henry David Thoreau:
Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes.
MAPP 9 & Co.: Thanks a million! Love you guys. Lots of hugs…
* But to be honest: that survey is from 2013, a year without any major soccer tournaments. That doesn´t really count…
**You will find 151 of those in Liv Hambrett´s hilarious and at the same time truly insightful piece What I Know About Germans.
*** Thank you for that one, James!
When you´re attending a seminar on coaching, training, positive psychology, or ‘self-help’ in general, there´s this 90% likelihood that at a certain point, the facilitator will talk about learning. In order to ‘open up’ the minds of the participants, most workshop hosts will use the (in-)famous ‘baby analogy’. They will give a talk on how babies learn to walk: by getting up, falling down, getting up again, falling down again, getting up again, …., you get the picture.
The message is: babies are not afraid to fail. The ‘just do it’. Thing is: I´ve had at least 2.500 hours of different courses in the abovementioned areas over the last years – so I tend to get a little tired of hearing the same story all over again.
Now I kind of received this live demonstration. Below you´ll find a video* of the Little Guru that my wife sent to me while I was at work. It (presumably) shows the first time ever that the Little Guru has managed to sit up all by himself. He tries once, falls down, tries again – and then he succeeds. Even more important: Little Guru not only shows persistence. He also takes his time to savor the victory…
This is a fast-paced life. We rush from task to task, meeting to meeting, job to job. Most of the time, there´s a lot of things that will go well along the way. Do we really take enough time to cherish what went well?
* Please excuse the vertical video syndrome.