Your love keeps lifting me higher

“When I sing, I am taken out of the mundane world into another place – and it is always a pleasure to return to that place.”

– Michael Bourke (from a case-study in ‘Flourishing’ by Maureen Gaffney)

One of my absolute favourite things to do is sing: I sing when I cook; I sing in the shower; I sing in front of my computer screen at work. I love it.

I was an active singer at school, being part of the school choir and occasionally singing my own songs for music class. If I felt inadequate in other areas of my life or even in music (I always felt a bit rubbish at playing the piano, for example), I knew that I could sing.

During most of my twenties, I did far less singing. I never properly found an outside opportunity to sing. I thought that choral choirs were too stuffy, serious and much better suited to an older generation. What I wanted was a choir that did traditional and modern pieces. I wanted a full range (or near enough to it).

But it wasn’t solely that I found it hard to find a suitable, easy-to-get-to choir in London, I also felt like I could not spend the time being part of one. My working hours were split between work and studying, my free time was spent commuting or preparing for classes. As I have written previously on this blog, London living was hard, and I did not have enough energy to expend it on something I really loved doing.

What a mistake that was! What I have learnt about passion is that I should never forgo, suppress or give up on what gives me great joy in life. I believe that part of the reason why I felt so unhappy at times living in London was because I wasn’t in a choir. And science has shown that singing in a choir is one possible secret to happiness. The author Stacy Horn does a brilliant job of describing the wonderful effects and release singing in a choir has on your brain, body and well-being. She says that it doesn’t matter if you can’t sing well as long as you can carry a tune, which according to the BAFTA and Emmy award winning choirmaster Gareth Malone, anyone can.

Since moving to Brussels, my return to choir-dom has been gradual, first in a choral group at work to now in a choir at one of the music schools in the heart of Brussels. My choir is a mix of students and non-students, young and old(er), Belgian and other nationalities. We sing a range of music, from Bach to the Beatles. Our choir director is charismatic, vivacious, motivational and not to mention funny. The rehearsals are filled with laughter and energy. It is my dream choir.

When I sing in the choir, I experience flow. ‘Flow’ is a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe the experience of deep engagement in an activity, in other words, losing yourself in what you are doing. The psychologist Maureen Gaffney describes in her book ‘Flourishing’ that when someone is in flow, their mind is “completely and effortlessly focused on the next move. The experience is poised at the sweet spot between conscious (but not effortful) concentration and being on automatic”.

“Singing reflects the innermost of your soul,” my Dad said to me most recently. In fact, his words provided me with inspiration for this week’s post. Gareth Malone says that the choir is an expression of something that is deeply personal and that is deeply human. When I sing, I often reach a state of ecstasy: my mind is empty; I am wholly and completely lost in the moment; my sense of time has altered. I feel like my true self has come out to shine. In the choir, I sense that I am part of something bigger than myself. We breathe together, we work together, we play together, our hearts may even beat in synchrony. It is said that singing in a choir is likened to a spiritual experience. Amen to that.

I may have convinced you to join a choir. But even if singing is not for you, here is my hope for you: that whatever interest, hobby or work that reflects the innermost of your soul; that lifts you higher and higher (as the song goes) – you keep doing it.*

*Lawfully and the “highs” are natural, of course.

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January

A year from now, you’re gonna weigh more or less than what you do right now.”

– Dr Phil

For the last seven years or so, I have written in my journal on New Year’s day, or as close to it as possible. I start this ritual by reading what I wrote on the previous New Year’s day. I then take stock of what has happened over the past year and compare it to the previous year. In my journal I reflect on this process and I then make resolutions for the New Year. Except for last year; that journal entry ended up being some irrational rant about the trials and tribulations of romantic love – the subject for a future blog post.

So I actually did no stock-taking, no comparing and no resolution-listing. I began 2013 with no expectations of the coming year.

Perhaps this was a blessing in disguise. Because I made no resolutions, I had no demands or targets to meet. I put no pressure on myself to be a better person, to be more loving and charitable, to strive in my career or even to be in a relationship. I did not reminisce about happier times or ruminate about regrets, which is something I would often do in my stock-taking – comparing – listing ritual. The first of January 2013 was very much another ordinary day.

The F**k It philosophy talks about how plans and goals can be troublesome. One reason for this is that they can keep you too rigid and inflexible, and – to an extreme – chained to something which instead of bringing you satisfaction, may end up bringing you the opposite. In her book ‘Flourishing’, clinical and academic psychologist Maureen Gaffney states that a key element to living a flourishing life – that is a life that has meaning, that brings out our best selves, that makes us happy and positive – is to have three life projects, preferably one that relates to work, the other to family or friends and the remainder to a personal interest. A life project is bigger than a mere goal, it has to be something that fits with our values and emotions, and is something that we freely choose to do, rather than it being an obligation. Gaffney advises that life projects do not need to be big, noble nor public.

In order to choose a life project, Gaffney sets out the following criteria:
– It must be freely chosen;
– It must have meaning to us;
– We must believe that it is achievable;
– We must set goals in relation to it;
– We must dedicate enough time and effort to achieve these goals;
– We must have adequate resources to pursue it (like commitment and drive);
– There must be a reasonable chance that we can achieve the goals in the specified time.

Last New Year’s day, I made no goals, not to mention life projects. And what resulted was a year where I achieved many things, some of which I have spoken about on this blog. I began reading Gaffney’s book a year ago and was extremely put off by the idea of having life projects. I much preferred the F**k It philosophy, it seemed to work for me.

I returned to ‘Flourishing’ again during this Christmas. I was less daunted by the thought of having life projects, probably because I had already started some unwittingly: writing this blog is a life project for instance. Another life project was my decision to eat more healthily and lose weight, thus prompting me into learning how to cook well.

To me, the F**k It philosophy and ‘Flourishing’ are not mutually exclusive. I think it’s important to leave space to be flexible and open to new ideas, as ideas of life projects may not come to mind straight away and neither should they be forced. I guess however the two can be contrary to one another – having a life project is about having a sense of control whereas the F**k it philosophy is about giving up control and going with the flow.

In the end, we must work out the best way to provide meaning in our lives. And I think that if we do set ourselves goals or projects or resolutions we must do so from a healthy starting point. Giving up chocolate or signing up to the gym because of guilt or feeling bad about ourselves should never be the driving force for achieving any of the above. This is because the motivation is focussed on the negative, rather than the positive. We are doing things out of punishment, not love. And because of this, the likelihood of us accomplishing our goals, resolutions, targets or projects are small, hence making us feel worse about ourselves.

Resolutions don’t have to start this week just because it’s the New Year. They can start whenever it feels like a good idea. Or like me last year, you don’t have to have any and you can just see where each day takes you. If there are things that you would like to do or achieve towards the good life, I encourage you to go for it! But go easy on yourself, take your time, leave lots of space and listen to yourself.

I wish you a wonderful start to 2014.