Here’s a little thought experiment. Imagine that you’re presenting a concert. You let in half the audience with no preparation, no instructions, just have them take their seats. But you give a pre-concert talk to the other half of the crowd in which you encourage them to enjoy themselves, and point out certain landmarks in the music that the audience will be surely glad to notice. Guess who has the better time?
Knowing our human weakness for suggestion and self-delusion, you might think it was the second bunch. You’d be wrong. Researchers Jonathan Schooler, Dan Ariely, and George Loewenstein actually tried this: they had a bunch of volunteers listen to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, dividing the volunteers into four categories. The first received no instructions. The second were told to try to be happy. The third were told to try to monitor their moment-to-moment happiness. The fourth were told to try to do both. They had the volunteers assess their own mood both on a numeric scale and by adjusting the smile/frown on a representation of a face.
To assess the impact of our experimental manipulations on happiness, we examined the changes to individuals’ responses to the critical happiness questions before and after listening to the music. The results of this investigation provide preliminary evidence that both monitoring and efforts to maximize happiness can actually impair the achievement of happiness. …[M]onitoring happiness significantly reduced happiness as indicated on both the numeric happiness scale and smile-face happiness measure. …[T]rying to be happy also reduced individuals’ hedonic experience, albeit primarily by reducing the reported mood.
The title of the paper says it all: “The Pursuit and Assessment of Happiness Can Be Self-Defeating.” In his book Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert sums up why:
Two reasons. First, we may be able deliberately to generate positive views of our own experiences if we close our eyes, sit very still, and do nothing else, but research suggests that if we become even slightly distracted, these deliberate attempts tend to backfire and we end up feeling worse than we did before. Second, deliberate attempts to cook the facts are so transparent that they make us feel cheap.
I wish I had found this research 12 hours earlier than I did, since it puts a rather provocative spin on just about everything that was said at yesterday’s Engaging Art confabulation between ArtsJournal and the American Symphony Orchestra League. The event was partially a hive-mind brainstorm on how, or whether, to change the classical concert experience to attract more and younger audience members. There was lots of talk about increasing interactivity, about engaging the audience in conversation, in making them feel as if they had a hand in creating the experience. Schooler, Ariely, and Loewenstein’s research would suggest that this would reduce the overall pleasure of the experience, since thinking about what makes you happy tends to interfere with your ability to be happy—they compare it to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: “[I]ntrospection about happiness may be impossible because introspecting affects (and potentially undermines) happiness.” There’s also the complication, reiterated again and again throughout Gilbert’s book, that what people say makes them happy almost invariably doesn’t.
But it also suggests that the traditional, temple-of-art music-appreciation presentation (which I’ve always rather liked) is self-defeating as well, since it promotes monitoring of the experience. You’re encouraged to listen for landmarks, to notice things, to sense the connection between the local and the global. And it turns out that all that encouragement just gets in the way of the joy of listening.
The first point I find mildly counterintuitive to my own experience, but the second I find really counterintuitive. A fair portion of my listening takes place on the analytical side, and I don’t feel like it reduces either the experience or the memory of that experience. In fact, if I’m deluding myself at all, I would bet that it’s in retrospectively enjoying a performance more—my tendency is to store away the good parts of a concert, and let the mediocre moments fade from memory.
What’s going on here? I admit that I don’t know; but my gut feeling is that it has something to do with the fact that my own musical education was primarily physical, and only secondarily intellectual. I started with piano lessons long before I knew what chords were called, what sonata form was, what orchestration meant. My primal experience of music was getting my hands dirty with the actual building blocks themselves, not just watching somebody else construct the house and learning the name for the pattern of bricks. So in listening to a piece, my ear starts mapping out the form and the flow intuitively, not because somebody has just told me to.
If this is indeed correct (and I’d love to know if there’s any data out there—I couldn’t find any), then it would suggest that the best way organizations could spend their outreach money is in simply buying instruments and getting them into the hands of kids. Anecdotally, this fits in with the corresponding decline of applied music education in public schools and classical mindshare in popular culture; my own experience is that getting rock fans to listen to Mozart can sometimes be a tough sell, but getting rock musicians, even self-taught ones, is a piece of cake.
It also suggests that the best concert experience would be the most neutral and music-focused, and that any form of window-dressing, be it old-fashioned or new-fangled, is just a distraction. Odd—you may be thirsty, but if you have to have the well pointed out to you, the water isn’t as sweet. It turns out what jazzes us the most is serendipity.