Music as therapy

My morning routine usually involves clicking around to a lot of newspapers and news sites to assess the state of things. I’m pretty good at understanding that typical daily news coverage is going to emphasize conflicts, challenges, and problems. But today’s flyover underscored my feeling that our chances to get things right are dwindling on so many levels.

In search of a positive mood fix, I went to YouTube in search of my favorite music video, that of the incomparable British pianist Jack Gibbons playing his singularly brilliant rendition of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” (link here). It’s fourteen sublime minutes. I have played this video — or favorite parts of it — countless dozens of times, and it never fails to bring my spirit into a different, better space.

I am hardly alone in recognizing the therapeutic gifts of music. As explained on one health care site (link here):

“Across the history of time, music has been used in all cultures for healing and medicine,” explains health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain, PhD. “Every culture has found the importance of creating and listening to music. Even Hippocrates believed music was deeply intertwined with the medical arts.”

Scientific evidence suggests that music can have a profound effect on individuals – from helping improve the recovery of motor and cognitive function in stroke patients, reducing symptoms of depression in patients suffering from dementia, even helping patients undergoing surgery to experience less pain and heal faster. And of course, it can be therapeutic.

So, if you find your spirits flagging for any reason, then you might try listening to — or even singing or performing — some of your favorite music. It may not change the extant circumstances that sent you into a bluer state, but it might help to lift you out of it.


P.S. Oh, and a story about Jack Gibbons. For years I had said that one of my time travel fantasies would be to find myself in the New York City concert hall where Gershwin first performed “Rhapsody in Blue” in 1924. In 1998, I was attending a continuing legal education program in Oxford, England, and saw a poster promoting a Gibbons concert featuring Gershwin music. I was unfamiliar with Gibbons at the time, but I bought myself a ticket. Was I in for a treat?! His finishing number at the end of this glorious concert was “Rhapsody in Blue.” I told friends that I now know what it felt like to hear Gershwin perform it back in 1924.

Accumulating stuff and more stuff: Are Millennials breaking the pattern?


Jura Koncius writes for the Washington Post on a trend observed by auctioneers, personal organizers, and downsizing coaches: Millennials aren’t that interested in inheriting all the material possessions that their parents and others want to hand down to them:

Members of the generation that once embraced sex, drugs and rock-and-roll are trying to offload their place settings for 12, family photo albums and leather sectionals.

Their offspring don’t want them.

As baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, start cleaning out attics and basements, many are discovering that millennials, born between 1980 and 2000, are not so interested in the lifestyle trappings or nostalgic memorabilia they were so lovingly raised with.

For now, at least, the Millennials don’t need or want all that stuff. As to why, Koncius quotes professional organizer Scott Roewer:

“Millennials are living a more transient life in cities. They are trying to find stable jobs and paying off loans . . . . They are living their life digitally through Instagram and Facebook and YouTube, and that’s how they are capturing their moments. Their whole life is on a computer; they don’t need a shoebox full of greeting cards.”

So will Millennials be the generation that breaks the constant cycle of accumulation?

I think it’s too early to say. Right now it’s fair to presume that life circumstances are influencing Millennial attitudes toward material possessions as much as anything else. Finishing school, geographic transience, economic pressures, and a challenging job market all enter the picture. Furthermore, as the Pew Research Center recently reported, “for the first time in more than 130 years, adults ages 18 to 34 were slightly more likely to be living in their parents’ home than they were to be living with a spouse or partner in their own household.” 

It also may be the case, as suggested in the Koncius piece, that Millennials are more likely to live in a digital mode, one less tied to accumulating material possessions. I’d like to think, or at least hope, that maybe they have wizened up to the fact that experiences, not possessions, tend to generate more individual happiness — something that many members of preceding generations have not necessarily understood.

In any event, if this trend hardens into a generational lifestyle choice, then it may be a healthy development for society overall. Speaking as an inveterate collector attempting to downsize my own belongings, I know that we’d be better off shaking the accumulation habit. It does mean, however, that thrift shops may overflow with unwanted stuff from empty-nested McMansions. Those giant dining room tables may just have to be sawed down into kindling.

Are you a “maximizer” or a “satisficer”?

Here’s a fun little discussion starter: When you check out a restaurant menu, shop at a store, consider job opportunities, or even assess social companions, are you a “maximizer” or a “satisficer”?

A maximizer, according psychology professor Barry Schwartz (Swarthmore College), prefers to survey all possible choices in search of the very best option, even if it takes a lot of time to sift through the possibilities. A satisficer, by contrast, prefers to consider enough options to find one that works, and then selects it and moves on.

Schwartz discusses the maximizer vs. satisficer distinction in his book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less (2004), in which he harnesses psychological data to show that an overabundance of choices can fuel anxieties, indecision, and unrealistically high expectations. This inquiry is especially relevant in cultures that place large premiums on having abundant consumer, vocational, and personal options.

Okay, but you may be asking, who is happier, the maximizer or the satisficer? The answer is, at least in terms of statistical probability, the satisficer. The maximizer is more likely to be daunted by the array of options and to second guess a decision. The satisficer is more likely to find a choice that works and not worry about the rest. Ultimately, suggests Schwartz, the satisficer approach is a happiness maximizer!

Of course, few people are embedded at either extreme, and for some, maximizer vs. satisficer traits may vary according to the situation. You may access Schwartz’s neat little 2004 Scientific American article that includes his 13-question survey and 7-point scale to help determine where you land on the spectrum.


Me? I’m mostly a satisficer. I tend to assess my options and make my choices quickly. And if the result is pretty good, then I’m okay with it and rarely look back and wonder “what if.” Not always, but usually. 

I first learned about the maximizer vs. satisficer distinction in a free online course, “The Science of Happiness,” taught by leading experts in positive psychology. Here’s my write-up about the course, including a link to the course registration information.

Mental Health Blog Day 2015


The American Psychological Association has dubbed May 20 as Mental Health Blog Day “to educate the public about mental health, decrease stigma about mental illness, and discuss strategies for making lasting lifestyle and behavior changes that promote overall health and wellness.” In response, I thought I’d collect a handful of articles from the past year that may resonate with this overall theme.

Mainstreaming psychological well-being in the law: TJ’s challenge (April 2015) — “What if our laws and legal systems focused on creating psychologically healthy outcomes for parties involved in legal matters and for society as a whole? What if considerations of economics (leaning right) and rights (leaning left) in creating law and policy were screened through the lens of psychological well-being of people affected by those laws and policies?”

Free course: The Science of Happiness (March 2015) — “Last fall I took a free online course, ‘The Science of Happiness,’ facilitated and taught by leading authorities on positive psychology. I thought it would be enlightening and useful not only for work, but also for my life in general. I was not disappointed. It was an excellent course, well-conceived and clearly organized, with plenty of compelling content. I can recommend it enthusiastically to my readers.”

Targets of workplace bullying: Pursuing healthy, immersive activities away from the job (January 2015) — “For some, delving into a positive, engaging, and immersive activity may serve as a healthy alternative to ruminating over a terrible work situation. This may be in the form of a hobby, a personal project, an avocation, volunteer work, or creating a side business. Shelley Lane did just that as she stepped back in time with her study abroad journals in the midst of her experience with workplace bullying.”

On being a change agent: The role of “Edgewalker” (December 2014) — “In her 2006 book, Edgewalkers: People and Organizations That Take Risks, Build Bridges, and Break New Ground, author Judi Neal writes that the “Edgewalker is someone who walks between the worlds,” an individual who builds bridges, works at the boundaries and soft edges, and operates in a visionary way. Neal draws heavily from diverse cultural and spiritual traditions in defining this role.”

“I am powerless” (Probably not, but let’s talk about it) (November 2014) — “Over the past couple of months, I’ve taken note of essays and blog posts where individuals have shared a sense of powerlessness to change things for the better. The saddest of these are proclamations: “I am powerless to (fill in the blank)….” They come from good people who care about making the world a better place, yet have reached a place of deep exasperation, frustration, or hopelessness. Some are venting, others are mourning. Some, having gotten it off their chest, will jump back into the fray, while others seem poised move on or withdraw.”

The courage of Monica Lewinsky (October 2014) — “For some 16 years, Monica Lewinsky has been paying a dear price for youthful mistakes that she happened to make with the President of the United States. Her affair with President Bill Clinton while serving as a White House intern became public in 1998, and it almost toppled Clinton’s Presidency. . . . In “Shame and Survival,” a piece that she authored for the June issue of Vanity Fair, Lewinsky, now 41, writes for the first time about what the ensuing years have been like. She describes the cruelties, ridicule, and humiliation, frankly but without excessive self-pity. . . . Lewinsky writes about her experiences with heart, insight, and thoughtful restraint.”

Competing visions of the “good life” (July 2014) — “John Ohliger (1926-2004) [was] an iconoclastic, pioneering adult educator, civic activist, and public intellectual whose work I have mentioned before on this blog. . . . In essays from the early 1980s, John foresaw the dilemmas over material goods that a modern, ‘first world’ society would face. He drew from the work of other leading adult educators to articulate two competing visions of the future for society. One vision was that of a ‘technological, top-down, service society’ that defined ‘the‘good life as affluence and leisure with high-tech big technology solving problems which lead to mastery of the environment.’ The other vision saw the good life as embracing ‘useful work, peace, self-fulfillment, and appropriate technology leading to harmony with the environment.’”

As graduation season approaches, some words of advice to students (and others) (May 2014) — “As a law professor at Suffolk University Law School, I’ve been serving as the founding faculty advisor to a new student-edited law journal, Bearing Witness: A Journal on Law and Social Responsibility. . . . When the editors of Bearing Witness invited faculty to contribute short pieces of advice for the second issue, I wasn’t sure what to offer. But then I started thinking about life in general, and suddenly the words came easier. Do not assume that I’ve done all these things right; rather, some of these points represent lessons learned. Here goes . . . .”


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Free course: The Science of Happiness


Last fall I took a free online course, “The Science of Happiness,” facilitated and taught by leading authorities on positive psychology. I thought it would be enlightening and useful not only for work, but also for my life in general. I was not disappointed. It was an excellent course, well-conceived and clearly organized, with plenty of compelling content. I can recommend it enthusiastically to my readers.

After a successful rollout last fall, the course is now offered on a year-round basis through EdX. You may access it here.

The course is designed to “teach the ground-breaking science of positive psychology, which explores the roots of a happy and meaningful life.” The course intro further explains:

Created by UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, the course will zero in on a fundamental finding from positive psychology: that happiness is inextricably linked to having strong social connections and contributing to something bigger than yourself—the greater good. Students will learn about the cross-disciplinary research supporting this view, spanning the fields of psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and beyond.

What’s more, “The Science of Happiness” will offer students practical strategies for nurturing their own happiness. Research suggests that up to 40 percent of happiness depends on our habits and activities. So students will learn many different research-tested practices that foster social and emotional well-being—and the course will help them track their happiness along the way.

The lead instructors for the course are Drs. Dacher Keltner and Emiliana Simon-Thomas of the Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley, and they appear frequently in short videos introducing segments of the course, summarizing material, and sharing their own expertise. They are very smart, down-to-earth, and likable. Short video lectures and articles from other experts are featured throughout the course. Quiz questions at the end of each unit, midterm and final exams, and optional homework exercises help to measure and expand your learning.

Although this is a non-credit course, it requires a fair amount of time each week, roughly 4-6 hours by my estimation. Although I finished the course and earned a certificate of completion, there were a few parts that I passed through rather quickly and am now returning to in order to get a more complete set of notes. However, it’s not necessary to complete the course in order to get something out of it; you can cherry pick your favorite units and leave it at that.

For a modest fee, you can earn a Verified Certificate that may enhance your resume. Health care professionals may be able to earn continuing education credits.

A note for skeptics: I would not have finished this course if it was all about superficial happy talk. This course gives us some tools for dealing with life’s ups and downs, and it is grounded in research and science. I found it to be a smart and insightful offering.


Related post

I wrote about a lesson I learned from the course in “Not-so-random acts of kindness for the non-saintly among us” (2015).

Positive thinking in a terrible job situation

It’s one thing to make the best of a bad workplace, but it’s quite another to engage in a sort of forced mode of positive thinking as a response to a terrible job situation. In a piece published on AlterNet, Alexander Kjerulf examines “5 Ways Positive Thinking Makes You Miserable at Work”:

1. “Faking emotions at work is stressful”

2. “Positive thinking makes things even worse for people who are unhappy at work”

3. “Negative emotions are a natural part of work”

4. “Positive thinking can contribute to quelling dissent and ignoring problems in the workplace”

5. “Trying to force yourself to be positive, makes you unhappy”

He offers extended explanations for each of these points. I recommend the full article to anyone who wants to understand more of the nuances between relentlessly negative and relentlessly positive attitudes at work.

While endorsing the idea that people can change their “mood and outlook through conscious effort,” Kjerulf takes on the notion “that you can always change your thinking in any situation, and that external circumstances don’t matter,” adding that “telling someone in a really rough life situation that they should think more positively is incredibly condescending and a terrible way to trivialize their pain.” He also does a nice job of distinguishing positive thinking from the field of positive psychology, the latter of which he generally endorses.

Related posts

If this general topic interests you, then these two earlier blog posts may be worth a look:

Dealing with a bad workplace: Getting to tolerance (2014) — “What do I mean by ‘getting to tolerance’? It means being able to deal with the undesirable aspects of your workplace without them constantly taking you down a notch, or at least bouncing back after a bad day there. It means being able to do your job well, perhaps even with some enthusiasm and satisfaction, despite the negative aspects of your work environment. It means not taking the bad parts of work home with you every day. It also means being able to develop and weigh future options in a constructive and hopeful way.”

Beyond happiness: Founder of positive psychology movement expands his vision (2011) — “Perhaps the most articulate critic of the ‘happiness movement’ in America has been Barbara Ehrenreich, political and social critic extraordinaire, who took happy talk to task in her 2009 book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. In a sub-chapter titled ‘Managing Despair,’ Ehrenreich excoriates corporate use of motivational speakers and team-building exercises to “inspire” workers in the midst of layoffs and pay & benefit cuts….”

May the spirit of papau inspire us

Let’s start the week with something good: Papau. It’s a great Hawaiian word. To quote from my crumbling copy of The Pocket Hawaiian Dictionary (1975):

papau. Deeply engaged, absorbed, engrossed; united, all together.

Papau may be an elusive place; let’s face it, even the best of jobs have their grunt work. But the state of being deeply engaged, absorbed, engrossed; united, all together is something to which we all should aspire. And if our current daily tasks don’t offer this possibility, then we should strive to find things that do. It’s not just about ridding ourselves of the bad stuff; it’s also about envisioning something better.

Isn’t it great that there’s a word for this? (Maybe this explains why the minute you land in Hawaii, your blood pressure drops 10 points!)


Thanks to Wikipedia for the great photo of a Maui sunrise at the Haleakala crater.

Recycling: The Golden Rule at work, hanging together, and personal reinvention

With the holidays beckoning, here are three past articles that offer some positive ideas and messages:

1. What if we applied the Golden Rule at work? (October 2010) — Did you know this “rule” has its roots in many faith traditions?

2. Can communal responses to tough times lead us to better lives? (October 2010) — Hopeful, humane, and creative thinking for difficult times.

3. Seth Godin: Seven keys to personal reinvention (September 2010) — Better than a New Year’s resolution.

[Editor’s Note: In addition to maintaining a list of articles that have remained very popular on this blog — see the Popular and Notable Posts page — every month or so I’m recycling relevant posts from more than a year ago. Hopefully they will be of interest to newer readers.]

Does life begin at 46?

Conventional wisdom about life’s journey, suggests The Economist magazine, is that our path is “a long slow decline from sunlit uplands towards the valley of death.” If so, then why is the cover of the magazine’s year-end issue headlined “The joy of growing old (or why life begins at 46)”?

To find out, look inside for an interesting piece about life’s “U-bend” (link here). Conventional wisdom, according to research, is wrong. True, we start off our adulthoods pretty happy and become increasingly disenchanted as middle age approaches. However, our outlook then gets better as we age.

The Economist cites research studies to back up its proposition. For example, the article references a 2010 study by researchers from Stony Brook and Princeton universities, which found that:

Enjoyment and happiness dip in middle age, then pick up; stress rises during the early 20s, then falls sharply; worry peaks in middle age, and falls sharply thereafter; anger declines throughout life; sadness rises slightly in middle age, and falls thereafter.

Obviously such studies represent aggregate findings; plenty of folks fall outside of that pattern, and life’s ups and downs can occur at any age. But the research indicates that the U-bend is an independent phenomenon:

(C)ontrol for cash, employment status and children, and the U-bend is still there. So the growing happiness that follows middle-aged misery must be the result not of external circumstances but of internal changes.

What of age 46? It turns out that globally speaking, overall happiness levels bottom out at 46. And according to a British Labour Force Survey, respondents’ self-reporting of depression peaked at 46.

Emotional intelligence improves with age

But wait! There’s even more good news (at least for anyone who is getting older, i.e., all of us). ScienceDaily reports on a UC-Berkeley study indicating that emotional intelligence improves with age (link here):

Their findings — published over the past year in peer-review journals — support the theory that emotional intelligence and cognitive skills can actually sharpen as we enter our 60s, giving older people an advantage in the workplace and in personal relationships.

According to lead researcher Robert Levenson:

“Increasingly, it appears that the meaning of late life centers on social relationships and caring for and being cared for by others. . . . Evolution seems to have tuned our nervous systems in ways that are optimal for these kinds of interpersonal and compassionate activities as we age.”

What does this mean for work and workplaces?

The aging workforce presents lots of challenges in terms of compensation & benefits, emerging retirement and labor market transition questions, and the like. But this research indicates a benefit as well. Our workforce has the capacity to become wiser, more compassionate, and happier. Maturity, it turns out, can be our ally. It would behoove us to take advantage of this promise as we weigh the kind of workplaces we want in a post-Great Recession society.

It also means that we can pursue vocations and avocations with a better idea of what kind of work brings us happiness, satisfaction, and fulfillment. We do not necessarily have total control over this question. Bills must be paid. But to the extent we have choices, they can be informed by our wiser understanding of what is important in life.


Some related posts:

Will our avocations save us?

Work and the middle-aged brain

What will be your body of work?

Are you a marathoner or a sprinter?


Barring important news developments, I’ll be devoting the remainder of my posts this year to pieces envisioning a healthier society.

Keys to happiness at work?

In 2009, Australian psychologist Timothy Sharp conducted an informal survey that asked a simple question, What do you consider to be the top three keys to happiness at work? The responses he received “were remarkably consistent.”

His study led to a short piece for Greater Good magazine, in which he shares “five key steps to workplace happiness” (link here):

“One: Provide leadership and values”

“Two: Communicate clearly and effectively”

“Three: Give thanks”

“Four: Focus on strengths”

“Five: Have fun”

Is that all there is to it?

This list is a good start — and the full article supplies more of the deeper meaning for each item — but I think there’s more. Sharp casts his lot with the school of positive psychology. In fact, according to the article he is known in Australia as “Dr. Happy.” As such, I think his general orientation may gloss over the darker sides of work and how organizations handle issues that implicate fairness, inclusion, and ethics.

Organizational justice is a term used to capture employee perceptions of fair treatment. A difficult situation at work can be a test of organizational justice. Workers who believe their employer acts with fairness and integrity are more likely to be satisfied and loyal and to feel safe, and those who do not are prone to think the opposite.

Signs of growing worker discontent

In any event, employers are advised to take worker happiness and satisfaction seriously, for it appears that pent up worker frustrations are emerging. Tim Gould, in a piece for HR Morning (link here), reports that “(m)ore than eight in 10 (84%) of the employees polled said they plan to look for a new job in 2011, according to staffing consultant Right Management.” The reasons include:

  • the prolonged recession and layoffs
  • increased workloads, small or no raises
  • companies’ reticence to add staff, even as business conditions have improved, and
  • a lack of trust in company leaders.
Hat tip to the American Psychological Association’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program for the HR Morning article.


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