One of my favorite go-to researchers on the topic of music and human physiology is Dr Daniel Levitin. He’s documented the relationship between listening to music you love and the release of dopamine — the feel-good hormone. Dopamine is also released by eating, having sex and by some drugs, including many of the illegal “recreational” ones.
Sex and Drugs in the Workplace?
Now that I’ve got your attention, this isn’t a post about sex or drugs at work — bad idea, people.
So…how is it possible to feel good at work if your occupation is a grind? If your boss is an ogre? If you are working three jobs to make ends meet? I’m not talking about just making it through the day so that you can go home to your chosen dose of dopamine; I’m talking about using a legal, safe and effective workplace intervention to keep the dopamine going while at work all day long.
Food at Work
By way of an example, let’s start with food. If you have ever been out to lunch with your team from the office, or been subjected to one of those embarrassing office birthday things, or keep a bowl of M&Ms or jelly beans or nuts at your desk, you’ll have an idea of where this is going. Sharing a snack or a meal with your co-workers is a great way to build rapport “outside” the normal humdrum of workplace activity. Food boosts dopamine, you feel better (at least no longer hungry!) for a while, and in that better-feeling place you naturally feel more secure, lower your guard a bit and get to know something about your co-workers as human beings. However briefly, the shared food-based dopamine boost over lunch can create a way for your co-workers to know and relate to you better, possibly enabling a more productive working environment. Make sense?
Team-building trainings and conferences, especially ones that last a day or more, often have activities in them integrated to food: networking lunches or games during dinner are common ways that food-based dopamine helps people get to know and trust each other. The more time you allow to really enjoy the meal, the better for your digestive system — and for your dopamine level.
That bowl of snacks on your desk? A great icebreaker, certainly, but I’m not suggesting a sustained sugar boost all day long. If you’re going to put out an obvious social offering for your co-workers, please make it a healthy one –something enjoyable that takes a few moments to consume. Taking a snack break with a colleague gives you both time to get the dopamine boost together, and that’s what you want when it comes to using food with the purpose of building rapport, getting to know a new colleague, even coming out of a tough meeting and needing that dopamine “reset.”
(By the way, it’s hard for me to understand folks grabbing lunch alone at their desks. I done it too. Time constraints on the job are a reality, but wouldn’t you rather take 15 minutes to enjoy a meal than 5 minutes to gobble something unsatisfying and non-nutritious that you’ll pay for later? You can have a nice solo dopamine boost from a slower meal, and a quick walk to the sandwich shop with a team member can work out better for your health and workplace satisfaction than holing up in your cube with FaceBook and fast food.)
The point here is integrating food and the people you work with for the best possible use of dopamine is a good idea.
Music at Work
Isolating yourself under headphones while in the office is one of those good/bad ideas. If you need the solo concentration to work a project well, by all means put on the tunes you love to get you feeling good about your work. On the other hand, your feel-good music might be separating you from your team. This balance is one you’ll have to find based on your own specific workplace demands. Of course I’m an advocate for sound-tracking as much of your day to day as you can — who wouldn’t want that musical dopamine high all day? — but there’s a more useful way to bring music into your workplace.
I’ve spent too much of my musical performance time as a soloist. Don’t get me wrong — I really enjoy giving my one-man show — but working with other musicians in rehearsal and performance made me realize how much I was missing by performing alone. Here’s why….
Musicians playing together are all “on” dopamine. Yeah, I know some bands perform high on a bunch of other substances as well, but whatever the genre, the musical magic that happens is heightened by this shared physiological experience. The fact is, you can’t make music you love without releasing some amount of dopamine into your system.
(To be complete, listening to or making music you hate triggers an adrenalin-based fight/flight/freeze response, which tends to isolate you from social interaction and therefore wouldn’t be so good around the office. If your occupation happens to involve situation that produce adrenalin, such as “pro athlete” or “military combatant” or “peace office” or “first responder” your training is such that you can effectively do your job under heavy distress regardless of the hormones coursing through your system. Balancing the adrenalin rush with dopamine comes later, “inside the wire” or after the game or once the emergency is over, and without this balancing, your risk of an adrenalin addiction becomes a real concern. If this describes you, please get some professional attention — you deserve it.)
Back to that making music together scenario….
Whether I lead a drum circle or present the power of music to an audience in a keynote address, there’s always a shift in the room once people have made music together. In a small circle, as the dopamine kicks in and you and the other participants tune in to each other, you begin to know each other on a level that has nothing to do with what you wear, whether you like your job or not, what car your drive or the language you speak. Making music together just eliminates those superficial ways we relate to each other and provides a very safe, effective and legal means of reaching a deep connection and understanding with the other participants. In a large group, there’s a powerful shared experience of creating music together. You can literally watch a change take place in the participants as the music progresses from start to finish.
Certainly dopamine facilitates that experience, but there are other factors working as well. It’s a holistic thing (physical, social, emotional) that’s complex enough to bore you completely. The point is that, after a group music-making exercise, there is a new openness in the participants’ communication, a certain inflection of joy where there may have been stoicism and a willingness to relate as human beings without considering position, rank and seniority. In that powerfully open place, it becomes possible to achieve things as a team that would not have been done so simply without the musical intervention.
This is not to say that entire companies ought to drum together regularly, although that could be interesting. What I’m suggesting is that team leaders have powerful team-strengthening tools available to them that are safe, effective and legal…and largely unused. Most of the world’s music can be found online for free. We can drum on a conference room table with our hands. We can stomp or tap our feet. We can sing — even badly! or chant. There’s quite honestly no limit on the ways we can make music together.
Yes, in America, there is a taboo about shared music making. Back in the day, companies such as Ford Motors and IBM actually began meetings by singing their respective company songs, which every worker — from the Chairman to the journeyman — knew by heart and could sing them robustly. Some of this tradition survives in civic clubs and at sports events, but, for the most part, it has simply disappeared at the office. Too bad; singing those songs at work brought people together in a way that felt good (dopamine) and welcomed a better level of interaction.
The best “modern” surviving example of singing on the job could be the military chants drill sergeants use to keep their platoons moving on long marches. If you are a workplace team leader, maybe you could begin by using the vocal chant cadences here and modifying them to fit your specific team objectives, then trying them on your team in the conference room before meetings. It’s a start, right?
(Spoiler alert: sales pitch coming!)
If leading your team in a chant or drumming on the desk isn’t your style, reach out to Music Care Inc for some help. Our innovative training can get your team humming (literally!) and give productivity and team interaction a positive boost.
Music at work? Why not? Making music at work? What are you waiting for?
Ready for a deeper dive? The Music Care Quest, a fully-mentored online active-learning experience will immerse you in practical ways to meet life’s challenges with skills you may not realize you already have. It’s not for everybody, but you are that unique individual who really resonates with with the power of music and wants to learn to wield it with skill, give it a try. The landing page is here.