Today I attended a discussion on the question, “Are we losing our humanity?” It was a wide-ranging conversation on what it means to be human, how the study of humanities serves us, and what it means to put the humanities into practice in daily life.
One of the many topics that came up was reading, and the importance of reading in helping us develop as human beings. One of the panelists commented that “reading is the vehicle for getting us into narrative,” and that narratives (stories) teach us about human behavior, which can be the basis for discussions about society.
This reminded me of something that my children’s elementary school principal used to say: “Reading is the way in, writing is the way out.” Although she never specified in and out of what, I have some ideas on it in the context of what I heard today: Reading is the way in to your mind, to your inner self, to a deeper understanding of life. Writing (and other forms of expression, especially speaking) is the way out to the world, out to society, out of yourself and into your community.
So to “do” humanities involves engagement in the world. But that’s another area that troubled some of today’s panelists – what is true engagement, true connection, in today’s world? Technology allows us to “talk” all the time, but does it help us listen, truly listen, to others? Certainly we’ve seen that the decline of listening has made us less tolerant of others’ opinions, and less likely to change our own.
Part of that issue is the shrinking of people’s attention spans. We communicate in ever more truncated “language”, we engage in shorter and shorter bursts of activity, and our brains are changing accordingly. Many of us would be hard-pressed to sit and listen to someone for any length of time. In order to be fully engaged as citizens of the world and members of our communities do we need to reverse that trend? Should we be re-training our brains to be able to pay attention and focus for longer periods? There was talk today of the “slow reading” movement – literally an attempt to get people to “move away from the computer” for a while and sit with a book, reading slowly and carefully, even re-reading favorite texts.
Modern life has been made easier by technology and by many of the societal changes that have occurred; but I don’t think that people are really much happier than they were two or three generations ago. Martin Seligman and others who study happiness have developed a three-part model of what happiness is. It includes positive emotion (the kind that comes from having pleasurable experiences), engagement (being in the “flow”, fully absorbed by some activity), and meaning. Tweeting and texting and multi-tasking might provide moments of pleasure, but I doubt that they can generate that feeling of flow that comes with full engagement, let alone supply meaning to our lives.
Engagement and meaning are more likely to be found in reading a book that touches something in your soul; listening to music that moves you; seeing a piece of art or a play that provokes ideas or controversy; writing a letter or a journal; or learning something new. The ways that we assimilate those experiences and make them a part of us opens the door for a deeper connection with others and something larger than ourselves. That’s what makes us happy.
So maybe the question is, are the humanities the key to more happiness in life?