Is it just me or do people who play guitar seem happier than average? It seems there may be a very good reason for this fact. It’s no coincidence that ‘The Blues’ became synonymous with guitar. The very act of learning guitar helps you to focus and take your mind off your worries. Recent research reveals that learning a musical instrument may indeed bring about sustained happiness.
Martin E. P. Seligman is a leading psychology professor in the US who specializes in the field of positive psychology. Seligman discovered early in his career that the overwhelming majority of research on psychology was focused on understanding and curing mental disorders. In other words negative psychology. A comparison could be made to physical health. For many years people would only seek out a professional (usually a doctor) when they were sick. Today the health and fitness industry is massive due to the fact that people understand that there are different levels of health. Just because you are not feeling sick doesn’t mean you are necessarily as healthy as you should or could be.
In the area of psychology we still have a long way to go in terms of understanding how to improve our general level of happiness. Just because you are not depressed doesn’t mean you are necessarily jumping for joy. Depression is very much on the rise and as with physical health problems like heart disease and cancer, prevention may help you to avoid becoming a victim in the future. Seligman’s book ‘Authentic happiness’ raises the topic of positive psycholgy in more detail for those who are interested but I would just like to point out how learning guitar ties into positive psychology.
Short term pleasure v long term gratification
Seligman explains how happiness basically comes in two forms. Short term pleasure and long term gratification. Pleasure is usually short lived and easily obtain. E.g. Eating chocolate, watching TV, playing video games etc. Long term gratification on the other hand mostly comes from a sense of achievement which of course usually requires a period of dedication and self sacrifice. E.g. Getting fit, passing an exam and of course learning to play guitar. Short term pleasure is basically the opposite of long term gratification resulting mostly in opposite outcomes. With pleasure you get the reward now and pay later whereas with long term gratification you sacrifice now and get the rewards later and almost always with interest.
In one study known as the ‘Marshmallow experiment’ they would put a 4yo in a room with a marshmallow and the experimenter would leave the room telling the child that they would return in a little while. The experimenter would add that if they could wait for them to return without eating the marshmallow they would receive two marshmallows. The children who were able to resist (delay gratification) were found later in life to get higher scores on their SATs. What this study concluded was children at 4yo who can delay gratification were more likely to be successful at school and a later follow up study found their average incomes were also higher.
Invest your time wisely
Keep in mind that we can apply the pleasure and gratification idea to learning guitar. The most obvious example is when students focus on just playing songs or riffs without really learning the skills of guitar. These students are seeking the short term pleasure of being able to play a new riff or song while avoiding the sacrifice of practicing the essential skills that in the long term will allow them to play their favourite songs with precision. The best way to find the real rewards on guitar is to put in real effort. When you go for the quick results and don’t invest the time and effort the result is usually frustration and disappointment. Those who invest their time wisely by spending at least 50% of their time focusing on developing the skills required (not just songs) will reap the rewards in years to come not just as skilled guitarists but in the psychological pay out of long term gratification.