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Why does Scottish Country Dancing (SCD) make you happy?

Michael Argyle, who I think is one of the unrecognised founders of the positive psychology movement, always used to maintain that as well as being married, having a religion, and various other things, taking part in Scottish Country Dancing made people more likely to be happy. Argyle liked to play the part of the English Eccentric, and he enjoyed Scottish country dancing, and he knew people would think it ridiculous and eccentric to propose it as a route to happiness.
But, actually, if you look at modern guidance about things that tend to promote well-being, as in the headings below, SCD does fit a lot of the criteria. I think Michael Argyle knew this, and that’s why he used to mention it – but I think it just made him happy, and he didn’t see why it shouldn’t work for others.
For Argyle, it was SCD, but many types of traditional social dancing fit this pattern, and have probably evolved for just this reason, just as many traditional board games are optimised to support flow.

Moderate levels of exercise With the option of making it more or less strenuous to fit your needs, without upsetting the rest of the group.

Mindfulness/alertness/awareness You have to concentrate on the patterns of the dance, fitting in with the music, matching your movements to your partner’s – and you swop partners as you go through most dances, so you have to be aware and responsive to a number of people. You also have to keep track of where you are on the dance floor, and where others are – there should be a coherent pattern of movement within each set, and several sets often dance together in a space which is a bit too small, so you have to avoid collisions with people from other sets.

Sociality Needs a number of people, and likely to be an organised occasion which puts pressure on you to go and be sociable, whether you feel like it or not. The structure of many dances ensures you look at and touch a number of other people. So if you came with a partner, you can’t ignore everyone else. If you don’t have a partner, whoever you start the dance with only has to put up with you for a small proportion of the dance, so people are fairly likely to agree to dance together, even if the prospective partner doesn’t look promising. On top of that, the dance structure requires certain numbers of couples, so there is social pressure on the unchoosing and unchosen to pair up and join in to make the dance possible.

Cooperativeness Obvious, to make the dance work, but also skilled dancers are motivated to help/tolerate/support unskilled dancers (especially ones who are uncertain about the figures) to enable the dance to proceed, and to make the experience satisfying for themselves.

Varying/developing skill levels, so encouraging flow Can be done by novices (simple patterns, support from others, you don’t have to get the steps right as long as you get the main movements right) but capable of developing a long way in precision, delicacy, vigour, etc. Experienced dancers will choose more complex dances and more subtle tunes.


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