What do Prokofiev and Shawn Achor have in common?  Upon first notice, one might think nothing. Prokofiev was a major musical composer of the 20th century, and Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage and other books, is a social scientist and happiness researcher. When you listen to the music of Prokofiev you feel joy and warmth. According to Michael Langham, Harpist with the Oakland, CA Civic Orchestra www.oaklandcivicorchestra.com, Prokofiev “conceived Symphony No. 5 in Bb Major, Op. 100 as a hymn to optimism and positive thinking; happy to be a human being and close to our roots and close to nature. The joy of life bursts forth…”

Shawn Achor, www.shawnachor.com has focused his life work on optimism and positive thinking, teaching that we can become the masters of our own emotional destiny. Achor teaches that if we simply think about three different things to be grateful for each day, we can re-program our brains to be more optimistic, within a few weeks.  

Recently I had the good fortune of finding myself at a community performance of the aforementioned Oakland Civic Orchestra. As soon as the Prokofiev piece began, I closed my eyes and began to feel the joy permeating my body, mind, and soul from the music. 

Listening to music, as well as playing music, can be immensely therapeutic. The sound waves actually travel to your body and you “feel” the music, viscerally. Have you ever noticed that as soon as you hear one of your favorite pop or rock songs you begin to move to the beat? Simultaneously, the brain releases the happy chemical, dopamine so that one feels a sense of joy and enhanced mood and even euphoria.  

How does this work?  According to a June 9, 2013 article in the New York Times, when pleasurable music is heard, dopamine is released in the striatum — an ancient part of the brain found in other vertebrates as well — which is known to respond to naturally rewarding stimuli like food and sex and which is artificially targeted by drugs like cocaine and amphetamine. 

When you experience an emotion while listening to music, ancient reward circuits are flooding your brain to make you feel good. 

What better way to overcome the negative feelings of everyday stress than to listen to some soothing music, especially that of Prokofiev or some of the other great masters, such as Tchaikovsky, Schubert, Chopin, or Beethoven. I would say my favorite Prokofiev piece is Romeo & Juliet, the ballet which, I attended many times as a young, hopeful ballerina. 

So the next time you find yourself overly stressed, find some relaxing music, perhaps on iTunes or youtube or even on a Zoom performance. Then sit back, relax, close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and let the dopamine flow. What a high, and a natural one at that! 

As the sounds emanate from all the various orchestra sections:  string, woodwind, brass, and percussion, the vibrations reach out and touch your heart and soul. You can’t help but feel better.