Musicians’ wellbeing: a cross-sectional investigation within the framework of Positive Psychology

Ascenso, S. (2022) Musicians’ wellbeing: a cross-sectional investigation within the framework of Positive Psychology. Doctoral thesis, Royal College of Music.


The World Health Organization has for decades highlighted how health is more than the absence of disorder, a proposal largely expanded by Positive Psychology. Doing justice to this appeal means that both the presence of positive indicators of functioning and the absence of illbeing are important when investigating wellbeing. Research among musicians is still to reflect this balance. This thesis broadens our outlook beyond the stresses and strains of the music profession that have populated the research base, through investigating positive indicators of functioning, alongside illbeing, with an international sample of musicians within the classical music sector, through three studies. The first study generated a profile of musicians’ psychological functioning through the lens of a multidimensional model of positive mental health, encompassing both hedonic and eudaimonic wellbeing. 1014 musicians (788 professionals and 226 students) answered the Mental Health Continuum–Long Form and the Satisfaction with Life Scale. Results evidenced a very favourable profile. Musicians scored moderately or highly across all components of wellbeing. There was also a higher proportion of musicians flourishing (experiencing optimal mental health) when compared with published indicators from general population and musicians’ scores were not different from those of a group of 130 dancers and 83 actors recruited for the current study. Demographic trends were broadly in line with previous research with other groups, although a striking exception were two gold-standard dimensions of wellbeing: Personal growth and Purpose in life. Contrary to previous research showing a decline with age for both among general population, musicians showed very high scores, very early on, which remained high for all age groups across the life-span. The second study drew a profile of musicians’ mental illbeing, through an assessment of non-specific psychological distress, a strong predictor of serious mental illness. 982 musicians (760 professionals and 222 students) answered the Kessler Scale of Psychological Distress. The large majority of musicians (64.4%) classified for no psychological distress, and the 23.9% who scored high enough for moderate levels, were mostly borderline to no distress. No significant differences in levels of distress were found across groups representing different types of musical activity. Professionals showed a more favorable profile than students in the proportion classifying for clinically significant distress (10% versus 17.6%). When comparing professional musicians’ distress scores with published indicators from other occupations, musicians scored lower than all: doctors, miners, nurses, army, and taxi drivers. Students’ rates were generally comparable or higher than other student samples. Musicians’ scores were not different to those of dancers (n = 121) and actors (n = 81) recruited for comparison. After obtaining a profile of musicians’ wellbeing and illbeing, Study 2 investigated how the two relate, adopting the framework of the Dual continua model of mental health. Mental health and illness were considered as two co-existing continua of functioning rather than opposite ends of the same continuum. Results confirmed the theoretical expectations of the model: there were only weak to moderate negative correlations between mental health and mental illness. Of the group of musicians reporting levels of psychological distress high enough to qualify for severe mental illness, 36% were simultaneously experiencing either high or moderate levels of mental health. The absence of mental illness does not equal the presence of mental health and vice-versa. The third study addressed questions left unanswered in earlier investigations where Positive Psychology was used as a framework for musicians’ wellbeing assessment. It clarified the profile of high meaning among musicians reported in previous research, examining the specific role of work-related meaning. 943 musicians (professionals and students) answered the Meaning in Life Questionnaire and 707 professional musicians answered the Work and Meaning Inventory. Musicians scored high in presence of meaning in life, meaningful work and also in search for meaning. Musicians’ level of presence of meaning was almost independent of their search for meaning. Despite finding meaning, musicians continue to actively pursue it. This search was positively associated with life satisfaction and negatively associated with psychological distress. Results also showed that having meaning in work protects musicians from the negative impact of psychological distress on global life meaning. When wellbeing is assessed as the presence of positive indicators of functioning musicians show favourable profiles and crucially, the integration of health and illness indicators brings new insight into musicians’ wellbeing. The results of this thesis carry implications for both the assessment and promotion of wellbeing among musicians. As we continue to further our understanding of how to enable a healthy music sector, Positive Psychology brings an innovative and valuable approach.

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