Question everything. Learn something. Answer nothing.
Over Sunday lunch yesterday my partner’s father, Mike, and auntie Patsy mentioned that they belong to a local book club. The club is very small – limited to 12 members so there’s always a waiting list. It meets once a month at a hotel to discuss the chosen book over copious cups of coffee and plates of biscuits. “It’s important to be on neutral territory”, says Patsy mischievously. Each member suggests one book a year, which they all read and mark out of 100: taking into account the plot, characterization and how they felt about the book. Both Mike and Patsy spoke about the book club with great enthusiasm so I was curious to know what they found so appealing.
Of course the social aspect is important – they appreciate the opportunity to meet up regularly with like-minded people especially to talk about books – something that they both love. Patsy used to be a teacher and has always loved and promoted reading, and after a long and successful career in the RAF, Mike taught a poetry class at the U3A* for many years. But it isn’t the social side of the book club that they value most, or even the fact that it gives them another excuse to indulge in a hobby they enjoy very much.
The Benefits of Learning
Somewhat surprisingly, what really appeals to them is being tasked to read books they wouldn’t normally read. The challenge of intentionally borrowing (or even buying) a book in a genre or by an author that they wouldn’t naturally choose is what they really value. In the five or so years that the book club has been running they’ve read everything from C.S. Lewis’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to Jodie Picault’s Vanishing Acts and Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mocking Bird (incidentally rated the club’s all-time favorite read). “At our age (they’re both in their seventies) it would be easy to sit back and stick to what you know”, says Mike, “but having to read books you don’t necessarily like is important, it really does broaden the mind”. “Yes I agree”, says Patsy, “opening yourself to new influences and new ideas is vital. You learn all the time.”
The connection between learning and well-being is already well-established. Learning is one of the New Economics Foundation’s 5 ways to well-being, one of Action for Happiness’s 10 keys to happier living and love of learning is also one of the 24 VIA Character Strengths. Although gaining new skills and qualifications (and the associated self-confidence) are worthwhile consequences of learning, you could argue that there are other less tangible but potentially more important benefits, such as opening oneself up to new opportunities and exploring new avenues: who knows where they might lead? Of course, being curious helps, and the likelihood is that it’s a two-way street: curiosity leads to greater learning, and the more you learn the more curious you become.
Intentionally reading books you don’t particularly want to seems a strange way to spend precious time. Patsy and Mike choose to do this and find this activity enriching. But what if you have no choice? What if you have to do things you find unpleasant?
In his excellent book, Curious?, Todd Kashdan explains how making up our minds that we have strong dislikes (for example, ‘I hate jazz, jogging and eating Japanese food and nothing will ever change that’) sets up barriers. Our pre-judgments prevent us from engaging in, and perhaps even enjoying, certain activities and experiences because we expect not to enjoy them. In fact doing things we don’t (or think we won’t) like with a curious outlook may shift our attitudes and change our expectations, and this can be energizing.
Kashdan offers some simple, evidence-based advice for increasing your motivation to do things you don’t like doing, and possibly even benefitting from them. Quite simply, rather than doing the activity just as you would normally (probably moaning and groaning and wishing you were doing something else!), intentionally search for three novel or unique things about it, for example, things that you weren’t expecting or things that take you by surprise.
He gives the example of teenage body builder who had previously scoffed at the idea of crochet, but when he focused on finding three novel features he became so engrossed he ended up spending 90 minutes on it. His initial judgment (crochet is something for grannies) changed and he did notice interesting things, including that crocheting was surprisingly tiring on the fingers and that when he crocheted, time flew by!
So perhaps it might be good for our well-being to sometimes do things we don’t fancy doing or find unpleasant. And even if we can’t bring ourselves to do this intentionally like Patsy and Mike, increasing our level of curiosity by spotting the novelty in a job or task we actively dislike is a great way to make it less of a chore and hopefully open us up to new possibilities. Reading a book I don’t fancy cover to cover seems a bit too much for me to tackle at this point in time, but a medium-sized basket of ironing awaits me. Usually I catch up with various favorite radio programs whilst I iron but this time I’ll take Kashdan’s advice.
I’ll switch off the radio and as I take each creased and crumpled item out of the basket, remove its wrinkles and transform it into something worth wearing, I’ll be curious, open-minded and pay attention to ironing’s novel features. And what unpleasant task will you do today, with added curiosity?
*U3A stands for the University of the Third Age, which is an international self-help organisation for people no longer in full time employment providing educational, creative and leisure opportunities in a friendly environment.
Kashdan, T. (2009). Curious! Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. New York. Harper Collins
Ironing Board courtesy of Nina Hale
Bright Yellow Flower Crochet courtesy of singlestiches