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Sing a song of happiness

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By David Whitlock

“The sun is finally out, the weather is warming up, I’m definitely heading home and putting on my Beach Boy records,” a friend once told me one bright, sun-shiny spring day, back when people still played records.

I now know why she was thinking about those good vibrations: We tend to invoke music that parallels the circumstances of our lives.

“When I’m feeling blue, all I have to do/Is take a look at you, then I’m not so blue,” Phil Collins crooned in one of my favorite “I’m in a blue funk,” songs. I suppose taking a look at his lover lifted his spirit, but the somber tune and melancholic words of that song reinforce the angst of separated love.

If you’re sitting alone in a hotel room, miles apart from your love, tormented by the possibility that she or he could always walk away, leaving you alone like a stranger in a bus station, or if that love is a distant memory for which you still yearn but know has evaporated like water in the desert, then “Groovy Kind of Love,” might just be the song to soothe your jaded heart.

Now, when I’m feeling atop the world, Pharrell Williams’ “Happy Song,” American Authors’ “Best Day of My Life,” or U2’s “Beautiful Day,” are perfect companions, and guess what happens when I listen? “I feel happy inside/It’s such a feeling that my love/I can’t hide, I can’t hide, I can’t hide.”

For years we have known that music affects our mood. After all, it’s been over 300 years since the playwright William Congreve penned the words, “Music has charms to soothe a savage beast.” And long before him, the servants of a depressed King Saul called on the young David to play his harp, hoping the music would lift the king from his doldrums.

We now know why music carries charms that can dispel the despondent soul, replenishing it with hope, much like a hearty meal does to a starving beggar.

It does it by getting inside your head, or more specifically, your brain.

Studies have shown that listening to music that moves you releases dopamine, the feel good chemical in the brain that is involved in both motivation and addiction. That helps explain why music has been around cross culturally for, well, as long as humans could sing. We feel it; we like it; we want more of it.

Shouldn’t we then make the most of our music, becoming our own music therapists, spinning tunes that set us on a course that moves us in the direction of our true selves?

That shouldn’t mean we limit ourselves to only one genre of music. I’m a believer in the occasional sad song, not only because it can be a healing salve for blistered love, but because it’s also a painful reminiscence that we are not there yet: We can sing about heaven on earth but we are still all too human. “No matter what we breed/We’re still made of greed,” the Imagine Dragons mournfully sing.

And yet, music has the power to lift us from the pit, even if the steps leading out are laced with dopamine. Ultimately, we are in charge of our emotions. We choose the music for our life song. It can be beautiful, prompting the good, or at least the better in us.

William James, in his Principles of Psychology, wrote that it is not so much sadness that makes us cry as crying that makes us feel sad. The body, or our physical actions, can determine how we feel. It was James who penned that quotable phrase: “I don’t sing because I’m happy; I’m happy because I sing.”

Didn’t we learn something like that in a childhood song? “Be careful little ears what you hear…Be careful little mouth what you say…” for “There’s a Father up above/And He’s looking down in love…”

Looking down in love?

If that much is true, then why not sing a joyful song?

And be happy.

David B. Whitlock can be reached at drdavid@davidbwhitlock.com