Individualism is a double-edged sword. We in the West deeply appreciate the opportunity to forge our own paths, but this freedom can result in smaller social support networks and poorer emotional health.
If only there was a way to periodically step out of our egocentric lives and join forces with a group of like-minded others, ideally to produce something beautiful.
Well, as it turns out, there is: choral singing.
Newly published research finds evidence that "the well-being benefits afforded by choral singing could be distinct in comparison with other leisure activities." The synchronistic physical activity of choristers appears to create an unusually strong bond, giving members the emotionally satisfying experience of temporarily "disappearing" into a meaningful, coherent body.
In the journal Psychology of Music, a British research team led by University of Bath psychologist Nick Stewart describes a study featuring 125 choral singers, 125 solo singers, and 125 team-sport athletes. (There were 231 participants in all, since 120 took part in two of those activities, and 24 engaged in all three; those 144 were instructed to "select the activity that was most important to them" when answering questions.)
Participants responded to several sets of statements designed to measure different aspects of well-being, plus their motivation for participating, and their sense of connection with their fellow members. (Example: They were asked to indicate, on a one-to-seven scale, "To what extent do members of this group share common goals?")
Losing yourself in a choral group can be a uniquely satisfying experience.
The first finding was that choral singers and team sports players "reported significantly higher levels of well-being than solo singers." While this difference was found on only one of the three measures of well-being, it does suggest that activities "pursued as part of a group" are associated with greater self-reported well-being.
Second, they found choral singers appear to "experience a greater sense of being part of a meaningful, or 'real' group, than team sports players." This perception, which is known as "entitativity," significantly predicted participants' scores on all three measures of well-being.
The researchers suspect this feeling arises naturally from choral singers' "non-conscious mimicry of others' actions." This form of physical synchrony "has been shown to lead to self-other merging," they noted, "which may encourage choral singers to adopt a 'we perspective' rather than an egocentric perspective."
Not surprisingly, choral singers experienced the lowest autonomy of the three groups. Given that autonomy can be very satisfying, this may explain why overall life-satisfaction scores were similar for choral singers (who reported little autonomy but strong bonding), and sports team members (who experienced moderate levels of both bonding and autonomy).
Overall, "Participants did not differ significantly in terms of how well their chosen activity (met) their need for social connection and belongingness," the researchers add. "This finding suggests that any leisure activity pursued with, or in front of, other individuals may serve to satisfy this need to belong and connect with others."
So if you feel the need to express yourself individually through solo performance, by all means do so: There are clear psychological benefits. But especially in our individualistic society, losing yourself in a choral group can be a uniquely satisfying experience.
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.