Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Why you can’t get a song out of your head and what to do about it

I have always considered myself a happy person, even though I may not always look it thanks to inheriting my father’s furrowed brow. Are there times when I’m not happy? Of course. Do I wish I could be happier more often? Who wouldn’t? While it seems everyone is looking for the answer to the age-old question, “What’s the secret to happiness?” the better question may be, “Is it even possible to be happier?”

About half of our level of happiness is based on genes. Some people are just predisposed to be happier and more upbeat than others. But that does not mean you cannot increase your level of happiness if it does not come naturally. In fact, research has suggested that 40% of people’s happiness comes from the choices they make.
Come on, get happy

So what are the right choices for happiness? You may find inspiration from the participants in the Harvard Study of Adult Development — one of the longest-running studies on happiness.

The project has followed 724 men since they were teenagers in 1938. (Approximately 60 men, now in their 90s, are still left.) The group consisted of men from various economic and social backgrounds, from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods to Harvard undergrads. (President John F. Kennedy was even part of the original group.) Over the years, the researchers have collected all kinds of health information, and every two years they ask members questions about their lives and their mental and emotional wellness. They even interview family members.

They found that specific traits and behaviors were linked with increased levels of happiness across the entire group.
Know when to let go

As the people got older, they tended to focus more on what’s important to them, and didn’t sweat the small stuff to the degree they did when they were younger, according to the project’s director, Dr. Robert Waldinger. Other research supports this mindset, and has found that older adults are better about letting go of past failures. “They tend to realize how life is short and they are more likely to pay more attention on what makes them happy now,” says Dr. Waldinger.

You could do the same. What activities make you happy and what’s stopping you from doing them? Think back to your childhood. What did you enjoy when you were younger? Singing? Playing games? Doing certain hobbies? “When you are older you have more opportunity to return to the activities you associate with happiness,” says Dr. Waldinger. So begin that coin collection, join a choir, or play poker or bridge.
Stay connected

The Harvard Study has found a strong association between happiness and close relationships like spouses, family, friends, and social circles. “Personal connection creates mental and emotional stimulation, which are automatic mood boosters, while isolation is a mood buster,” says Dr. Waldinger. This is also an opportunity to focus on positive relationships and let go of negative people in your life, or at least minimize your interactions with them.

If you need to broaden your social life, try volunteering for a favorite cause. Odds are you will meet more like-minded people. Volunteering also is another way to boost happiness by providing a sense of purpose. In fact, a study published online May19, 2016, by BMJ Open found that this benefit was strongest among people age 45 to 80 and older. Look for volunteering opportunities in your area that match your interests. Richard Hoffman, a professor of internal medicine and epidemiology at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine in Iowa City, led a team that reviewed survey data that men filled out one, two, five, and 15 years after they were treated for prostate cancer. All 934 men included in the study were 75 or younger when diagnosed, each with localized tumors confined to the prostate gland. Approximately 60% of the men had low-risk prostate cancer that was expected to grow slowly, and the others had riskier cancers. Most of the men (89%) were treated with surgery or radiation. The rest were lumped together as having had conservative treatment: either medications to suppress testosterone (a hormone that makes prostate cancer grow faster), or “watchful waiting,” meaning doctors delayed treatment until there was evidence that the cancer was spreading.

Overall, 14.6% of the entire group expressed some treatment regret — 16.6% of the radiation-treated men, 15% of the surgically-treated men, and 8.2% of the men treated conservatively. Among the causes of regret, treatment-related bowel and sexual problems were cited most frequently. Surgically treated men reported the highest rate of significant sexual side effects (39%), while radiation-treated men reported the highest rate of significant bowl problems (15.6%). Remarkably, complaints over urinary incontinence differed little between the groups, ranging from a low of 15.5% for the conservatively-treated men to a high of 17.6% among men treated with radiation.

Results also showed that regret tends to increase with time, suggesting that when initial concerns over surviving prostate cancer wear off, the quality-of-life consequences of treatment become more apparent. Regrets were especially pronounced among men who felt they hadn’t been sufficiently counseled by their doctors before settling on a particular treatment option, and also among men who were preoccupied with changing levels of prostate-specific antigen, a blood test used to monitor cancer’s possible return.

Given these findings, the authors emphasized how important it is that men be counseled adequately and informed of the risks and benefits associated with various treatments. But men should also be reassured that treatment for prostate cancer has improved since the mid-1990s, and that bowel and urinary side effects in particular “don’t occur as frequently now as when the men in this study were diagnosed,” says co-author Peter Albertsen, a professor of surgery and chief of the division of urology at UConn Health in Farmington, Connecticut. “Earworms” are unwanted catchy tunes that repeat in your head. These relentless tunes play in a loop in up to 98% of people in the western world. For two-thirds of people they are neutral to positive, but the remaining third find it disturbing or annoying when these songs wriggle their way into the brain’s memory centers and set up home, threatening to disrupt their inner peace.
Which songs become earworms?

Certain songs are catchier than others, and so more likely to “auto repeat” in your head. When music psychologist Kelly Jakubowski and her colleagues studied why, they found these songs were faster and simpler in melodic contour (the pitch rose and fell in ways that made them easier to sing). And the music also had some unique intervals between notes that made the song stand out. The catchiest tunes on the UK charts between 2010 and 2013 were “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga, “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” (somewhat ironically) by Kylie Minogue, and “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey.
What predisposes to earworms?

In order to get stuck in your head, earworms rely on brain networks that are involved in perception, emotion, memory, and spontaneous thought. They are typically triggered by actually hearing a song, though they may also creep up on you when you are feeling good, or when you are in a dreamy (inattentive) or nostalgic state. And they may also show up when you are stressed about having too much to think about. It’s as if your stressed-out brain latches onto a repetitive idea and sticks with it. Also, if you have a musical background, you may be more susceptible to earworms too.

Certain personality features also may predispose you to being haunted by a catchy tune. If you are obsessive-compulsive, neurotic (anxious, self-conscious, and vulnerable), or if you are someone who is typically open to new experiences, you may be more likely to fall prey to an earworm.
Why might earworms be good for you?

There is a particular characteristic of music that lends itself to becoming an earworm. In contrast to our daily speech, music typically has repetition built into it. Can you imagine how absurd it would be if people repeated themselves in chorus? Yet, though repetition of speech is associated with childishness, regression, and even insanity, in the case of music it may signify a process that becomes pleasurable when it is understood through repetition. Also, each time music repeats, you hear something subtly different. This learning may constitute one of the positive aspects of earworms. Also, earworms are a form of spontaneous mental activity, and mind-wandering states confer various advantages to the brain, contributing to clear thinking and creativity.
Are earworms ever worrisome?

Not all “stuck songs” are benign. Sometimes they occur with obsessive-compulsive disorder, psychotic syndromes, migraine headaches, unusual forms of epilepsy, or a condition known as palinacousis — when you continue to hear a sound long after it has disappeared. Persistent earworms (lasting more than 24 hours) may be caused by many different illnesses, such as stroke or cancer metastasizing to the brain. A physician can help you determine if your earworm is serious or not.
How do you get rid of earworms?

If you’ve had enough of your earworm and need to stop it in its tracks, you would be well warned not to try to block the song out, but rather to passively accept it. A determined effort to block the song out may result in the very opposite of what you want. Called “ironic process” and studied extensively by psychologist Daniel Wegner, resisting the song may make your brain keep playing it over and over again.

Some people try to distract themselves from the song, and it works. In one study, the most helpful “cure” tunes were “God Save The Queen” by Thomas Arne and “Karma Chameleon” by Culture Club. Others seek out the tune in question, because it is commonly believed that earworms occur when you remember only part of a song; hearing the entire song may extinguish it. Other techniques found to be helpful include those from cognitive behavioral therapy, such as replacing dysfunctional thoughts like “These earworms indicate I am crazy” with “It is normal to have earworms.” A less intuitive cure for earworms is chewing gum. It interferes with hearing the song in your head.

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