Incremental Steps to Happiness

by Dr Nick

The Toxic Drumbeat

The Toxic drumbeat of the 24/7/365 News Cycle is impacting us all and brought home to me as I was sitting in a waiting room assaulted by the never-ending talking heads on a television playing in the corner of the room proved too much to me this morning. There were others in the room – some listening but mostly focused intently on their phones (in this small data set 60% were on phones). There was even one poor employee who must endure this mind-numbing content for at least 8 hours a day who appeared to have successfully tuned out the noise and paid little attention.

My personal experience was like the recurrent snapping of a rubber band pulling me back in – it was as if this was the design to keep me attentive, which of course it is, working exactly as designed. The repeated change in tone, volume, and content playing to our brains built-in triggers that look for change – honed over millennia as part of our fight, flight survival response mechanisms.

Distraction and Mood Lifting

For me, it was too distracting and I needed something to allow me to tune this out and I turned to my multifunction computer (my mobile phone) and a pair of headphones that accompany me everywhere and picked an old playlist from 2008. The effects were almost instantaneous lifting my mood, transporting me back to fond memories and experiences and my foot started tapping. No doubt I looked a little crazy to others in the room but I did not care and even wondered if they might be able to discern the song playing based on my mouthing the words “Don’t Stand so Close to Me” (released by the Police in 1980 on the Zenyatta Mondatta album)


I could picture the “Music Video” that accompanied the song when it came out as well as being reminded of old friends and medical school colleagues from that time along with some formative and fun experiences.

The Power of Music

The power of music and its unique link to our emotions and capacity to lift or indeed drop our mood is well established. This meta analysis of 400 studies suggests the answer is a resounding yes to mood-lifting effects and this fMRI study from 2001:  Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion dug into the details of what might be happening in our brains under the influence of music

Music Dopamine Efefct
The Effect of Music on the Brain

TL;dr – While uncertain the Dopaminergic activity in the nucleus accumbens (NAc) and ventral pallidum, ventral tegmental area (VTA) is the likely driving the pleasure similar to the actions seen with cocaine and heroin on these areas of the brain. Hmm does that mean you could be guilty of DUI of music..?

It is no wonder that Colin Hung’s MixTape for HIMSS is a popular aside to the expansive and overwhelming annual health conference (now in its 4th year)

It remains a highlight for me – not least because it offers to excuse to spend hours digging into current and old music and pulling together a story to tell for the year and I’ve been fortunate to have contributed each and every year (Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Camouflage, and U2)

I don’t know about you but I lost my way with listening to music when we moved from physical storage medium to digital. I always had LP’s (if you think that’s an old term check out the classic comedy sketch by the talented “Not the Nine O’clock News” where you might recognize one of the stars – Rowan Atkinson aka as Mr Bean, from the 80’s and the opening line “I’d like to buy a Gramophone”)

And cassettes and CD’s that were scattered around my life including in cars and by the “stereo” that in its heyday was even wired to play to outdoor speakers. But as we moved to digital the challenge of playing off hard drives that was not a seamless or painless experience created barriers to listening to music in the early days of the digitization of music. The good news it is so much better these days. The phone does automatically connect to the blue tooth car stereo or wireless speaker system – playing music is easy and the new ways to explore are even better than seeking out a good Disk Jockey (DJ) on the radio. Pandora’s algorithm has opened my mind and access to new bans and tunes on a regular basis.

And if you have not explored Shazam and Soundcloud you are missing opportunities. I can remember listening to a song on a radio driving through the miles of expanse in Texas loving the song but missing the band or song name. I spent weeks hunting down the name, calling friends attempting to describe/hum/sing the song (very poorly I admit) trying to find out the details so I could add it to my collection. I did eventually identify the track and it reminds me of that journey every time I listen to it (Clocks by Coldplay if you were wondering). No problem anymore – I’m tagging songs I hear on the radio and as soundtracks on television using Shazam and Soundcloud. I have a slew of music I love that I found this way.

Incremental Steps to Happiness

So, in this current combative and challenging environment of political disagreement and frustration, I have some incremental steps and suggestion to help you cope and be happier:

  • Sign up for Pandora Account – Its Free
  • Pick a song you Like and Create a Station and start rating what gets played
  • Note down bands and songs you like and Listen to Other Tracks from them
  • Make extensive use of Shazam or SoundHound
  • Gather your Music Digitally and Create some Play Lists
  • Listen to Your Children’s Music – Something will Grab You


Music, Happiness
Incremental Steps to Happiness with Music

One thing for sure – you will enjoy the sojourn away from the talking heads on television and the general lifting of your mood adding a spring to your step

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