January is traditionally the time of year when we resolve to take on new habits and hobbies, hoping perhaps to ‘improve’ ourselves in some way. Often these take the form of resolutions around diet and exercise, but there are other ways to improve our health and wellbeing for the better.
Music has long been known to have a positive effect on our mental wellbeing, and like most people you have probably found your mood lifted by listening to a favourite song on the radio, or attending a concert or gig. Making music ourselves takes that mental health benefit one step further.
In her open access course ‘The Science of Wellbeing’ [https://www.coursera.org/learn/the-science-of-well-being] Dr Laurie Santos of Yale University considers all of the different things that make us happy. Amongst aspects such as spending time with friends and family, showing gratitude, and adopting healthy habits, are other less well-known but equally powerful mood boosters.
Dr Santos argues that we need to be ‘challenged’ in our everyday lives. Fortunately, this doesn’t mean that we want people to start fights with us! Rather, it means that we are happier when engaged in activities that make us think, and stretch our skill set, leading to a sense of accomplishment. Whether you’re an adult or a child, learning a musical instrument will do just that. The old adage ‘practise makes perfect’ could perhaps be adapted to ‘practise makes happy,’ as we overcome any difficulties to slowly master our chosen instrument.
Another strategy for improving wellbeing is to take part in regular ‘flow’ activities. This is where you become absorbed in a task (often a creative task) to the point where the outside world almost ceases to exist. In recent years activities such as adult colouring have become popular as they encourage this flow state, but of course playing a musical instrument is also a flow activity. In fact, you might argue that playing music is the ultimate flow activity, since it involves your eyes, ears, and most other parts of your body too!
Once you gain some mastery of your chosen instrument, it can be a tool for meeting new people and starting new friendships, through joining an ensemble such as a band or orchestra. When you are able to, making music with friends is one of life’s greatest pleasures – even football fans know this when they sing on the terraces! Being part of an ensemble also provides an extra level of challenge as you have to fit in with the music going on around you, taking you right back to that idea of ‘practise makes happy!’
This New Year, if you’re looking to improve your wellbeing, you could do worse than to take up a musical instrument!