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Positive Psychology

A Single Path to Well-Being and Peak Musicianship

A musical life, if done right, can offer great personal benefit.

Key points

  • Positive psychology should be of special interest to musicians.
  • Music has long been recognized as a valued contributor to enjoyment and fulfillment.
  • Music's benefit to well-being can elude musicians without proper awareness.

If looking only at the on-stage personas of successful musical artists, people might conclude that "musician life" is full of perpetual fun and emotional reward. What could be better than making a living by expressing yourself creatively and doing the thing that occupies the leisure time of regular people? True, most musicians love music. But it's not always the "head over heels new romance" kind of love affair. Often, it's the "gotta work at this to make the marriage last" kind.

Photo by Jim Jacob on Unsplash
Photo by Jim Jacob on Unsplash

In reality, musicians’ lives can include significant hardships. They can find themselves in stressfully competitive situations as they audition and strive for positions, gigs, and other opportunities. Moreover, some performance activities involve much criticism and constantly being judged by others. While the successes can be thrilling, less successful times can take a heavy toll on musicians’ well-being.

So, it sounds like musicians’ lives are much like those of other people. This is surely true but with a few possible exceptions. For one, research has suggested that, compared to people in other lines of work, musicians more deeply build their occupation into their personal identity. This means that they may struggle more with work–life balance or, perhaps, they reject the notion altogether. Can musicians (and other passion-driven professionals) use their occupational activities to bring social–emotional enjoyment and fulfillment to their lives? The field of positive psychology would seem to suggest yes.

Quite distinct from pseudoscientific self-help ideas, positive psychology is a research-based discipline that has provided valuable insight into how people can best experience enjoyment and fulfillment in life. This is not the power of positive thinking ideology of a minister-turned-motivational speaker. Or the so-called law of attraction popularized by self-help writers and celebrities. Positive psychology is a branch of scientific psychology that studies human mental health not through a lens of pathology but with an eye toward discovering “what’s above zero” (Dilley, 2023). In other words, instead of just identifying psychological problems and helping people manage them, positive psychology aspires to determine what enables people to thrive and enjoy their lives.

Known as the “father of positive psychology,” Martin Seligman has done much to advance the field of study, in large part through his PERMA model of well-being. The acronym PERMA indicates five important contributors:

  • Positive emotions
  • Engagement in intrinsically rewarding activity
  • Relationships with others
  • Meaning and mattering in one’s life and experiences
  • Accomplishment of important goals

Perhaps not surprisingly, music appears to be very well suited to promote human well-being. Engagement with music has long been recognized by psychology as a valued contributor to enjoyment and fulfillment among people. Why, then, is it not more common for musicians to be exemplars of well-being, thriving, and enjoying life? Clearly, musicians’ preoccupation or “serious” engagement with music can interfere with their enjoying its benefits to well-being. That said, the benefits are available to them if they manage their activities accordingly. We need only go through the PERMA components with a musical perspective to get more attuned to the music and well-being connection:

  • Positive emotional experience is had by people as they listen to and make music, suggesting an “innate musicality” of human beings (Zatorre, 2018).
  • Engagement with music, in many forms, has been shown to be intrinsically motivating for people, meaning they do it for no other rewards than the experience itself (Woody, 2020).
  • Relationships with others are commonly built and strengthened through group music-making as the “support and resonance from others” gives people a sense of belonging and the feeling of being “part of something greater” (Gabrielsson, 2010, p. 566).
  • A sense of meaning and mattering in life is often experienced through musical engagement, including among populations of people who need it most, such as adolescents (e.g., Parker, 2018).
  • The ability to accomplish goals in music is a characteristic of young people who persist in their music activities to reach a satisfying level of musicality (Evans & McPherson, 2015).

Indeed, offering help to manage the challenges of “musician life” is the overriding purpose of this blog. I imagine that some musician readers have found a personally rewarding musical life to be elusive despite their best efforts. For these readers interested in exploring this specific topic in my blog entries over the years, I would direct them to this earlier post about how musician passion can take very different forms.

For musicians who have lost touch with how their artistic work can contribute to their well-being, perhaps the first step in rectifying this is being more selective and strategic in what musical activities they engage in. It would seem wise to prioritize music engagement that keeps the emotional capacity of music “at center stage” in their lives. Psychological research has shown that musicians who find the PERMA components in their music-making can experience powerful personal and artistic rewards and enjoy a greater sense of well-being (Ascenso et al., 2017).


Ascenso, S., Williamon, A., & Perkins, R. (2017). Understanding the wellbeing of professional musicians through the lens of Positive Psychology. Psychology of Music, 45(1), 65–81. DOI: 10.1177/0305735616646864

Dilley, R. (Executive Producer). (2023). The man who invented happiness science: Marty Seligman (season 6, episode 16) [Audio podcast episode]. The happiness lab with Dr. Laurie Santos. Pushkin…

Evans, P., & McPherson, G. E. (2015). Identity and practice: The motivational benefits of a long-term musical identity. Psychology of Music, 43(3), 407–422. DOI: 10.1177/0305735613514471

Gabrielsson, A. (2010). Strong experiences with music. In P. N. Juslin & J. A. Sloboda (Eds.), Handbook of Music and Emotion: Theory, Research, Applications (pp. 547–604). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Parker, E. C. (2018). A grounded theory of adolescent high school women’s choir singers’ process of social identity development. Journal of Research in Music Education, 65(4), 439–460. DOI: 10.1177/0022429417743478

Woody, R. H. (2021). Music students’ intrinsic and extrinsic motivation: A quantitative analysis of personal narratives. Psychology of Music, 49(5), 1321–1343. doi: 10.1177/0305735620944224

Zatorre, R. J. (2018, November). Why do we love music?. Cerebrum: The Dana Forum on Brain Science, 2018. Dana Foundation.

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