Cultivating Optimism: How Musicians Can Create Life-Long Happiness

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3803517719 61fc214012 zI had the privilege of participating in the Community Day at Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music this past weekend, a day-long celebration of transformation through the arts, where I spoke about how musicians and artists can create long-lasting happiness. I am fascinated with this topic since research shows that happiness and optimism generate the positive emotions that make it possible to cultivate the mindset and engage in behaviors that give rise to fulfillment and success. In other words, happiness breeds success.

Think about how important happiness is to musicians. Not only does it provide personal motivation to pursue one’s craft, but it also enhances the ability to collaborate with other artists (in ensembles, choirs, orchestras), to influence and inspire audience and to generate successful contacts with music professionals like presenters, venues and educators.

So how does one go about creating more happiness and optimism in order to generate your own success?

What we are going for is lasting happiness, not the temporary rush you can get from eating ice cream or going on a shopping spree, or the bump that might happen from moving to California or getting a new job or meeting a new love interest.

I am indebted to Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a research psychologist whose work on how to create life-long happiness is summarized in her book, The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want.

For starters, is it really possible to become happier?

Dr. Lyubomirsky’s research shows the following:

  • 50% of your ability to become happier is determined by your genes so you have an inherited “happiness set point” ;
  • 10% comes from your circumstances, like talent, intelligence, looks and lifestyle; and
  • 40% is unaccounted for.

And here is the fascinating conclusion of the research:

This unexplained 40% is where you come in. Because this 40% depends on your behavior. So if you can change your behavior, you can become happier.

How do you do that?

Through ” intentional activity”, which involves these 4 steps:

  • Making a decision to work on becoming happier;
  • Learning skills and strategies that will make you happier;
  • Applying weekly or even daily effort; and
  • Committing to a long-term goal to become happier.

Yes, creating life-long happiness takes work! It requires time and patience. It entails commitment. And the good news is that with practice, it becomes a habit.

Doesn’t this sound like the path to becoming a better musician?

Dr Lyubomirsky cites two more factors that underlie the ability to create long-term happiness.

  • The strategies generate positive emotions which are fundamental to happiness.
  • The strategies work when you have social support (like Community Day at the Institute for Sacred Music or my coaching groups at Yale).

Dr. Lyubomirsky’s research shows that happy people are more likely to perceive their lives in a positive, optimistic way so let’s start with some strategies for generating positive emotions by cultivating optimism.


Thoughts and Perceptions

What comes to mind when you contemplate creating success in your artistic career?

Worried about not knowing which career option to pursue?
Fear of diminishing opportunities?
Frustrated about intense competition?
Fear of not being able to make it?

How about these thoughts?

The opportunity to create a career based on your passion?
A way to work with amazing people?
A way to be of service to communities and audiences?
Confidence that you have worked hard to create your current level of success and are optimistic that this will continue into the future?

I have heard all of these and more from the musicians with whom I work.

Let’s see why these thoughts matter:

Remember that happiness involves experiencing positive emotions and being optimistic about the future.

Our emotions come from our thoughts. Your thoughts have an impact on your feelings. And your thought and feelings will have an impact on how you behave.

For example, if you are worried and frustrated about your career prospects, what are you going to be like at a performance?

On the other hand, if you feel optimistic, imagine yourself performing with those thoughts in your mind.

What is true?

Feeling great after a good performance or feeling terrible after a setback?

While both may feel true in the moment, they are, in fact, a matter of your perception of your situation.

Your perspective on how you think about yourself and your artistic career is going to have a powerful impact on how happy you are.

Over time, the more you stick to one perspective, the more it will become engrained as your default way of thinking. If you spend a lot of time perceiving the world from a place of scarcity, unfairness and fear, chances are that you are not going to feel successful—and other people will probably pick up on that energy.

If you find that the world is a friendly, welcoming place, you are likely to feel more successful and adopt the positive mindset of success.

Here’s the good news:

You can change your thoughts because they are perceptions, not facts.

The more you can channel your thoughts and perceive situations in a more positive light, the more you can face and manage your challenges and feel a sense of optimism about the future.

Happiness Activities

How can you change your thoughts and cultivate optimism?

By adopting specific intentional happiness activities.

Here are 3 great activities that help to cultivate optimism. The first two involve changing the way you think. Neither takes a lot of time. It is a matter of training yourself to catch your negative thought and come up with a more positive alternative.

The third activity takes a bit more time but it is an intervention that Dr. Lyubomirsky has used in her laboratory with positive results.

All three have resonated powerfully with the Yale students so give them a try!

Activity #1: Cultivate Optimism: Identify and Overcome Your Barriers to Success

Let’s go back to our example of the thoughts that come up when you contemplate your successful career. At the ISM Session, students cited the following barriers to success:

  • Not knowing what I will be doing in the future;
  • Not feeling good enough to make it and lacking the confidence to do so;
  • Feeling overwhelmed.

One way to cultivate optimism is to take a close look at those barriers and probe how true those barriers are.

This involves asking yourself the following questions when those negative perceptions crop up:

How can I do better the next time?
What can I learn from this barrier?
What strengths can I use to overcome this obstacle?
What have I done in the past when faced with similar situations?
What resources can I tap into to help me improve?

By coming up with answers to your perceived challenges, you are showing yourself that you can view your situation with greater positivity. By practicing this activity over time, you can actually change those initial perceptions and begin to view your world in a more positive light.

Activity #2: Cultivate Optimism: Look at the Positive Side of Things and Put your issues in Context

Another way to cultivate optimism is to look at the positive side of things and put your issues in context.  Practice asking yourself the following questions on a regular basis:

What’s working in my life?
Will it matter in one year? (The ISM crowd really loved this one!)
Is this something within my control? If not, let it go.
If it is within my control, what can I do about it?

This too will help you to create a more positive perception of your situation and develop the habit of optimism.

Activity #3: Your Best Possible Future Selves

Another research-based activity to improve your attitude and cultivate optimism is called Your Best Possible Future Selves.  Here is how it works:

Think about the best possible future for yourself in multiple areas of your life:

What would you like to be doing professionally?
Who is in your life?
What kind of relationships do you have?
What provides your life with meaning?

Write your thoughts down in a journal or otherwise, spending 20-30 minutes at a time until you have completed your life portrait. This may take some time so enjoy it!  Research shows that when people engage in this activity, they imagine a future based on their deeply-held values and goals.

Once you have completed your portrait, set some goals to achieve your dreams.

What do you want to achieve? By when?

And then break them down in to SMART goals to generate short-term mini-goals that enable you to create weekly action steps towards achieving those big goals.

Creating the Happiness Habit

Now that you have learned 3 new strategies, pick the one that will have the most positive impact on your life. As with any new habit, it takes a lot of work, especially in the beginning, so commit to undertaking your activity on a regular basis until it becomes second nature.

Here’s to your happiness!