Happiness Quantified, Humanist Qualified


There is a point where we all want to go back in time and shake some sense into our younger selves. Since that is not a possibility, I’ve been passing on to students and young professionals what I think I would have found useful in music school. This is the first of a three part series I introduced last month. In each part of the series I touch on ideas I would have found helpful years ago. This month I’m touching on the importance of happiness.

Happiness Quantified; Finding, Keeping, and Practicing Happiness

One of the most important things being overlooked at music schools is practicing, maintaining, and cultivating happiness. Happiness is habitually pushed aside until an individual’s ideal goal or job has been achieved. With many musicians and artists I know, there is often an unspoken “law” that individuals deprive or deny themselves of happiness until they have “made it.”

How ridiculous that sounds as I type, but I too practiced that exact method of thought. Happiness was something I told myself I didn’t deserve because I hadn’t achieved my ideal goal yet. Here’s the fun kicker:  goals change sometimes, and sometimes the new goal becomes the new obstacle of happiness. It’s a vicious cycle.

Talking with fellow artists I was relieved I wasn’t the only one out there denying myself enjoyment in life. The times I should have been enjoying in-the-moment happiness, I was too fixated on what was just beyond my grasp. Soon that became my method of operation: reach goal, find something wrong with it, and look for new goal. You can be unhappy in any situation, or you can try to be happy. Most of the time, it is a choice.

So here are my rules on happiness:

  1. Happiness is something you need to seek, practice, and cultivate. It takes effort in some cases.
  2. Keep track of and write down what made/makes you happy on a day to day basis. For myself, I literally started writing down stuff like: “I’m happy there is air in my lungs.” And “I’m happy the cat didn’t throw up on my music today.” Once I started looking for happiness, I started to find more and more of it and it turned into “I’m happy my friend won a job” and “I’m happy I got to play Mahler 8.”
  3. Do not deny yourself happiness if you haven’t reached your ideal goal or job. You are teaching yourself to be perpetually unhappy and you don’t even know it yet.
  4. Sometimes when you achieve your ultimate goal, happiness is not granted, or the happiness is fleeting. You have to continually cultivate happiness.
  5. Know that your position or title (or lack of position or title) does not grant you happiness (or unhappiness), nor does it define you as a human being. It also does not define or limit the impact you are able to contribute to your art.
  6. The best artists, musicians, people, I know are masters at finding and practicing happiness at the most basic levels. And they work at it daily.
  7. Happiness can be contagious and so can unhappiness. Be mindful about how much you complain with colleagues and friends as it is a breeding ground for unhappiness. Also, be mindful how much you write down about bad situations on social media outlets. By writing down misery and sending into the world, you are punctuating and perpetuating it.

Now what, are you a better person because you can start to find sources of happiness? Yes, kind of. However, there is another component that is equally as important.

Human Qualification; How you treat others reflects and affects you

My dad always reminded me as a child, “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.” That has stuck with me for a very long time, and I remind myself of it as much as I can.

How you treat your colleagues, friends, and future or former co-workers shows what kind of human you are. You don’t have to like everyone, and not everyone has to like you, but a mutual respect should be a top priority for everyone. It can be hard since so much of our business is dictated on how we perform, where we work, and who we are in our field of expertise. But that shouldn’t prevent us from being mutually respectful and trying to be as kind as possible.

Here are my rules for how to behave to your fellow humans:

  1. Treat everyone with the kind of respect with which you wish to be treated. Not everyone will return the favor, but people notice.
  2. Don’t rely on your position in your organization to dictate your stature. Everyone is important for different reasons.
  3. Limit complaining, especially to people who earn less than you.
  4. Thank people for doing their best, thank people for helping you out, and thank people for influencing and believing in you, and generously return the favor to someone else.
  5. Encourage people to rise up to a better level, and then don’t be threatened if they “pass you up” in life.
  6. Don’t suddenly ignore people if you have moved up in your field. You can move down just as fast.
  7. Never assume you deserve more favors or more respect simply for the position you hold in your organization or industry.
  8. Before negatively criticizing anyone, (super stars, colleagues, students, bosses, substitutes, teachers, etc.) find three things positive about that person first. If you can’t find three positive things, then you are actively looking for negative issues. Finding three positive attributes in anyone can start to neutralize your own negativity and eventually lead to a mutual respect down the road.

And lastly, regarding happiness and humanness in the arts field, we generally want the same thing. We want to perpetuate art and have people enjoy it and share it. There can be competition and power struggles along the way, but there is a grand picture many forget to look at. And when we do step back to analyze our own position in this grand picture of keeping the arts thriving, we all play a role. No matter our position in the process let’s find joy and happiness and let’s exercise our best human qualities.

Next in the series will cover how to eat well on a budget, stay tuned!

About Holly Mulcahy

After hearing Scheherazade at an early age, Holly Mulcahy fell in love with the violin and knew it would be her future. She currently serves as concertmaster of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra. She spends her summers at the celebrated Grand Teton Music Festival. Believing in music as a healing and coping source, Holly founded Arts Capacity, a charitable 501(c)3 which focuses on bringing live chamber music, art, artists, and composers to prisons. Arts Capacity addresses many emotional and character-building issues people face as they prepare for release into society. Holly performs on a 1917 Giovanni Cavani violin, previously owned by the late renowned soloist Eugene Fodor, and a bespoke bow made by award winning master bow maker, Douglas Raguse.

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11 thoughts on “Happiness Quantified, Humanist Qualified”

  1. As heard in a recent TED talk, one doesn’t become grateful when they’re happy, they become happy when they’re grateful. Thank you for a terrific article!

  2. Thanks, Holly, for reiterating the importance of being happy on a daily basis and while you are working towards achieving your goals. While many people think that you will find happiness once you achieve “success” (whatever that is), in fact the opposite is true. Research from positive psychology and from neuroscience confirms that happiness breeds success! Happy people feel more engaged in their work, enjoy better relationships, have better physical health, feel less stressed, think more clearly and creatively. As a result, they are more likely to get promoted, make more money, have more opportunities and find the success that is meaningful to them. My advice to musicians is to focus on the day-to-day experience of learning and joy– two important building blocks of success–and then to build on that experience towards achieving your goals.

    For more on this fascinating topic, I invite you to read my blog post on how happiness breeds success:

  3. My impression has always been that happiness is a byproduct. You can’t seek happiness. You do what you were meant to do or you work to fulfill your mission (not necessarily accomplish), and the happiness comes with it. I think people who are able to merely “seek” happiness are probably experiencing life on a different level.


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