The experience of musicians and other artists is full of highs and lows. On one hand, we experience the positive, life- and art-affirming effects of being recognized and praised for our work; and on the other hand, we experience the shaming, soul-crushing effects of being criticized for our work – or worse – having our work be ignored.
Here are a few examples …
Positive, Life- and Art-Affirming Things in the Life of Musicians:
- Getting a band or project started
- Feeling inspired
- Performing to a large, enthusiastic audience
- Being offered good spots on good shows
- Receiving abundant, positive acclaim for an album
- Collaborating with talented, inspiring musicians
- Seeing supporters and fans grow
- Making money (or breaking even!)
- Being noted with high regard in the music scene
- Other things!
Shaming, Soul-Crushing (sometimes slowly) Things in the Life of Musicians:
- Having a band or project dissolve or break-up
- Feeling paralyzed
- Performing to no one, or a few uninterested people
- Being unable to get shows
- Receiving terrible reviews for an album (or maybe worse, no reviews)
- Feeling isolated from other musicians
- Having no fans or supporters, or seeing them drop
- Losing money
- Being noted with low regard – or none whatsoever – in the music scene
- Other things!
Maybe we should consider musicianship and artistry as one of the great equalizers, because no matter what, as musicians we WILL experience life-affirming and soul-crushing things. No matter how talented or well-connected we are, we will experience a shitty show, a bad review, a band demise. No matter how inexperienced or isolated we are, we will experience the exhilaration of creation and skill mastery.
How can we truly experience the joy in the wonderful aspects of being an artist AND get through the terrible aspects (or better yet, learn and grow from them) with ease? There are lots of ways, and one of them is practicing gratitude.
What is Gratitude?
Gratitude is based on the acceptance of two general ideas: There are good and valuable things in life and the experience of appreciating these things is free. It can be explained as a temporary feeling and a personality feature.
No surprise: Gratitude comes more easily to some than others. Those experiencing depression or anxiety and those with cynical, pessimistic dispositions will find that experiencing and expressing gratitude is challenging. Why be grateful? There’s nothing to be grateful for. And anyway, it’s all pointless. I GET IT. But it turns out, anyone can learn to feel and be grateful.
What is Gratitude Practice?
It’s really quite simple: Practicing gratitude comes down to taking the time to notice and reflect on things we’re thankful for. This increases our capacity to feel and be grateful. It doesn’t require any elaborate system or complicated method (though it can if you’re into things like that). It is merely a way to shift your focus from the negative to the positive, and that can be done in many ways.
One way I’ve increased my capacity to feel and be grateful is by keeping a Gratitude Journal. Each day for the last five years, I’ve captured in writing at least three things for which I’m thankful. It’s one of the practices that drastically reduced my symptoms of depression and anxiety and greatly improved my overall sense of well-being. Keeping a Gratitude Journal is not for everyone, of course; but cultivating an attitude of gratitude can be.
Why is Gratitude Practice Important for Musicians?
As we’ve already talked about: music is hard, musicians are prone to depression, being a musician is stressful, and (see above!) the music business is full of highs and lows. It’s easy to get a distorted vision of ourselves, our work, and our world. It’s easy to lose sight of why we do this and the (sometimes large, sometimes small) joys that come along with our art.
And, this may have been implied, but we can’t forget about everyone’s favorite past-time: comparing ourselves to others! Look at what they’ve accomplished. We work harder than them. Why don’t I have more followers? Why didn’t we get that show? How did he get featured in that video? How is she so much better than me at her instrument? How are they…? Why aren’t we…? When will I…?
We can start to believe that if other artists succeed, then we lose. Focusing on what others DO have (seemingly or in reality) and what we DON’T leads to jealousy, envy, self-absorption, creative paralysis, and animosity. We can protect ourselves from these things through gratitude practice.
Practicing gratitude in the face of comparison, jealousy, and negativity helps musicians to:
- notice the good, positive things about ourselves and our work,
- be happy for ourselves,
- notice the good, positive things about others and their work,
- be happy for them (or at least neutral about it!), and
- use it all as motivation to learn and grow.
As musicians, we have to work hard all of the time. We constantly pursue our dreams and goals. Do better. Do more. Create better. Create more. It’s incredibly easy to lose sight of what we’ve already accomplished, what we’re already doing, and our present capacity to create.
How Can Musicians Benefit from Gratitude Practice?
The benefits of gratitude practice are numerous, and the coolest part is that the benefits accrue. The longer we practice gratitude, the more we develop a capacity to experience gratitude.
Another great thing: Gratitude practice is effective for those experiencing depression, anxiety, or other mental health concerns. Surely, it may be harder to start; but the benefit of starting and continuing may be even more noticeable. Practicing gratitude isn’t just for the “well.”
Studies find that gratitude practice benefits us in many ways, and they split the benefits up into five categories: Emotional, Social, Personality, Career, and Health. This piece from Joel Wong and Joshua Brown published in 2017 through The Greater Good Magazine gives a lot of interesting information on how gratitude changes the brain, and this piece from Courtney E. Ackerman, MSc published on PositivePsychology.com in 2019 sums up all of the benefits and their scientific basis better than I can. Definitely check these out.
Emotional Benefits of Gratitude Practice
Gratitude practice enhances our overall psychological well-being and makes us happier for the long-term. It enhances resiliency and positive emotions like self-esteem while decreasing negative ones like envy. When practicing gratitude, we purposely shift our focus away from negative, toxic emotions over to positive ones. This changes the prefrontal cortex of our brain, enhancing our sensitivity to future experiences. Likewise, it serves as a protective factor against suicidal thoughts and actions. Since musicians are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety than non-musicians, enhancing our storehouse and capacity for positive emotions is incredibly valuable.
Social Benefits of Gratitude Practice
Improving relationships is another key benefit of gratitude practice. When we practice gratitude, we become more trustworthy, social, and appreciative (or, at least, that’s how others see us). Basically, we become more likable. Showing genuine gratitude to others encourages relationships to thrive. Romantic, family, friend, and band relations improve with gratitude practice. This also serves to grow our social support network, meaning in good times and stressful times we will have more people to help us. As musicians – whether we like it or not – we have to work with others, talk to strangers, network, and manage relationships with lots of different people in order to do what we love and meet our goals. Enhancing our social abilities will help.
Personality Benefits of Gratitude Practice
Feeling pessimistic, materialistic, stingy, self-absorbed, and stuck in a state of constant want? Gratitude practice helps by expanding our capacity for optimism. It helps us to feel and think in a more gracious way, which decreases self-centeredness, increases generosity, decreases materialism, and supports a greater overall satisfaction with life. Some people worry that if we’re happy with what we have instead of always striving for the next big thing, that we’ll lose out: Lose our edge, miss the opportunity, grow complacent, and stop improving. For musicians, complacency means failure. Gratitude practice doesn’t encourage complacency; on the contrary, it encourages us to notice all of the things we have while simultaneously increasing our motivation and productivity.
Career Benefits of Gratitude Practice
For musicians, our career is music – whether we are full-time musicians, work full-time at a job we love, part-time at a job we hate, or casually through freelance and other odd-jobs. We’re exposed to the same risks of burnout, fatigue, and stress (and maybe more so) as those in other professions. While gratitude practice helps us in those other jobs, there are just as many benefits for our careers in music. Practicing gratitude helps us to better manage our work and lead others more effectively. Leadership skills like inspiring motivation, praise-giving, and decision-making improve while impatience and stress levels decrease. Having trouble keeping bandmates? These capacities might help. Gratitude practice enhances the experience of work, makes us more effective, helps us to find meaning, and decreases the likelihood of burnout.
Health Benefits of Gratitude Practice
Who doesn’t want better overall health? Musicians can benefit from improved overall health just as much as others, if not more (think about the health consequences of sleep deprivation, hectic schedules, tour-life, constant pressure, drugs and alcohol, etc.). In addition to an improved overall sense of better health, gratitude practice decreases blood pressure, improves sleep quality, decreases our fatigue, increases our likelihood of exercise, decreases levels of cellular inflammation, and aids in the recovery of substance misuse and depression. Gratitude practice is something that we can do regardless of our schedules, locations, or other deadlines – and it helps our health.
How Can Musicians Develop Gratitude?
Practicing gratitude is about noticing and reflecting on things we’re thankful for. We start by noticing what is already present and abundant in our lives. It’s easy to get started.
Decide to Start a Gratitude Practice
There are clearly lots of benefits to practicing gratitude. If these benefits sound valuable, then decide to start today. There are lots of ways to do it – some that take barely any time at all, and others that are more involved. The first step to any new habit is to begin.
Commit to a Frequency
Gratitude Practice takes many forms. Perhaps starting by setting aside time once a week to purposefully reflect – in your mind, on paper, or in discussion – will work best. Maybe a daily routine is a better fit. It’s also possible to work it into everything you do, asking yourself throughout the day “What is good about this moment?” or “Is there anyone that deserves appreciation right now?” Even if it’s not bound to a specific frequency, just committing to saying thank you more often or writing letters of thanks to people who have been inspirational helps to get started.
Experiment with Different Methods
There are lots of ways to practice gratitude, and part of the “fun” is in finding what matches best with our personalities, schedules, and interests. Here are some different methods of Gratitude Practice to try. Use your creativity and powers of expression to make a meaningful experience and reap the most benefits.
- When waking, think of someone or something that makes you glad. Maybe it’s the fact that you woke up, or that your bed is comfortable, or that your pet is adorable, or that you can play an instrument, or that there are songs in the world that you like. Just think of something, and hold the thought of it in your mind for a moment while you reflect on the fact that you’re thankful for it.
- When going to sleep, think of someone or something that brought you joy during the day. What made you smile or laugh? What went well? What made you feel good about yourself? What sounded good? Really picture this in your mind, noticing as much about it as you can, and reflect on the fact that you’re glad for it.
- Write in a Gratitude Journal. Each day (or week) think about at least three things that you’re grateful for – no matter how big or small – and write them down. The more vividly you can describe them, the better. The more you can reflect on why you’re thankful, the better. On stressful days, you might find that just writing down, “I’m grateful that I’m trying to practice gratitude” or “I’m grateful I have paper to write on” is all you can muster. And that’s OK.
- Create a Gratitude Jar (or Board, or Box, or Spreadsheet). Every time you think of something that you’re grateful for, write it on a piece of paper and place it in the jar (or on the board or whatever). Some people like to look through all of the slips of paper at the end of the day, or week, or month, or year to see all of the good things that they experienced at once.
- Write Gratitude Letters (or emails or texts or posts) to people you’re grateful for. Maybe it’s someone who inspired you to start playing music a long time ago, but you never told them. Or maybe it’s someone who has really challenged you to be a better musician, and even though it was hard at the time you appreciate it now. Or maybe it’s your bandmate. Or maybe it’s your hamster. It doesn’t matter what you’re thankful for or even if you ever give it to the person. The act of noticing and reflecting is what creates the benefits.
- Write Gratitude Songs (or Gratitude Paintings or Gratitude Sculptures or Gratitude Poems). Same as for the Gratitude Letters, just more artistic.
- Practice Gratitude Meditation. You can find lots of guided Gratitude Meditations on YouTube and in books, and you can do it on your own. It’s basically like any other meditation that is meant to ground you in the present moment. These just add the idea of gratitude – noticing and reflecting on what you’re thankful for. [Level up by reflecting on what you’re thankful for about people and things that make you mad and hate-filled.]
- Say “Thank You” more often. We often forget to say “thank you” because we’re all so busy and communication can be awkward. Maybe we say it, but it’s just an auto-“thank you” instilled by your grandma. Making an effort to notice things that people around you do and reflecting on it by saying “thank you” is simple but powerful. Thank you for carrying the heavy equipment. Thank you for not pointing it out to everyone when I messed up that song. Thank you for handling all the booking, because it’s really hard for me to do that. Thank you for coming to practice all the time. Thank you for coming out to our show, it means a lot. Thank you. Thank you. [Cue iconic Led Zeppelin intro].
Gratitude Practice for Musicians: Summary
The musician’s life is full of ups and downs. To fully experience the ups and to soften the blow of the downs, we can practice gratitude. Developing gratitude benefits our minds, bodies, and social networks – which in turn benefits our music and our ability to keep on creating. Starting a gratitude practice is easy. Notice and reflect on the things we are thankful for on a regular basis (there are lots of ways to do this), and soon we will start to feel more optimistic, motivated, and connected.
Thank you for taking the time to read this article about practicing gratitude and to consider how it could help you as a musician and artist. I really hope it can be helpful to you in some way (as it has been for me and many, many others). Be well!
If you want more information, check out some of these sites:
“What is Gratitude?” Gratefulness.org
“How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain,” Greater Good Magazine
“The Science Behind Gratitude (and how it can change your life),” Happify
“How Gratitude can Make you a Better Musician,” ReverbNation Blog
“14 Health Benefits of Practicing Gratitude,” PositivePsychology.com
“28 Benefits of Gratitude & Most Significant Research Findings,” PositivePsychology.com
“Gratitude,” Psychology Today
“Five Insights on Gratitude,” Psychology Today
“How to Develop a Gratitude Mindset,” The Chopra Center
Friendly reminder: Of Music and Mind content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the assistance of qualified providers (such as some of those found on the Resources page) with any questions you may have regarding any medical conditions.