Wisdom by way of Picasso and Elizabeth Bennet

Our greatest thinkers, artists, innovators and scholars have in common a curiosity that persists throughout life. They are open to new ideas and never stop learning. As Pablo Picasso said, “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”

All dimensions of wellness “act and interact” in ways that impact quality of life. Growth in the intellectual dimension helps us pro-actively solve problems, widens our understanding of the world and its people, and gives us a sense of control over events. Intellectual well-being is a key factor in maintaining resilience in the face of stress because it enables us to think critically, to see opposing points of view and to trust ourselves to make good decisions.IMG_0416

Recent findings from the Benefits of Lifelong Learning project show that non-job related adult education increases self-confidence and well-being, leads to greater tolerance of and trust in other people, and broadens social networks. Adult learners become more health-conscious, start doing more volunteer work in their communities, and show increased motivation to further their studies. Learning begets learning, or as daVinci noted, “Learning never exhausts the mind.”

Earlier this week, I attended a funeral where a young man eulogized his grandfather by sharing with us some of his wisdom. The older man was intensely proud of his grandson, yet he often said to him (with a smile), “Remember – you’re always a freshman.” Not only was he saying, “Don’t get cocky,” he also meant that we’ve always got something to learn, we’ll always be new to something. Or as John Wooden put it, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

There’s often a sigh of relief at graduations – whether high school, college or grad school – that formal education is finished, at least for a while. But after some time passes, many of us miss those days in school, and not just because of the lifestyle. We miss being challenged, stimulated, exposed to new ideas, that buzz we get when we feel ourselves growing. Unfortunately modern life often distracts us from further intellectual pursuits – we get caught up in earning a living, raising a family, keeping up with the latest technology, and think that we don’t have the time or money or energy to take a class, learn a language or practice a musical instrument.

Fear sometimes holds people back too. Deciding to learn something new first requires us to admit that there’s something we don’t know. That’s more difficult for some of us than we’d like to admit. We don’t really want to be “a freshman” again. What if we fail? What if we’re not good at something? Can our fragile egos take the risk?

Fortunately, there are ways to dip a toe in the water of intellectual growth if signing up for that degree program or those cello lessons is too big a step right now:

  • Read a book for fun. Yes, fun. It might be non-fiction on a topic that interests you; or try fiction in a genre different than your usual taste.
  • Attend a seminar or lecture. Local newspapers are usually full of listings for free events, at least in big metropolitan areas.
  • Write. A private journal or a blog such as this one will stimulate critical thinking and send you out looking for information and ideas.
  • Play old-fashioned board games or card games. Many of these challenge you to think strategically.
  • Watch a TED talk. They have thousands of short lectures that offer “ideas worth spreading.”
  • Stay up to date with events in the world, but don’t just accept what you see and read. Question it, look for the opposite view.

There’s a scene in “Pride and Prejudice” where Mr. Darcy tells Elizabeth Bennet that he doesn’t have the talent for easily conversing that some people do. Elizabeth counters by saying that she doesn’t play piano as well as some women, but she always took that to be her own fault for not practicing enough. Ultimately we are each responsible for our own growth and development, aren’t we?

Discovering what’s here

“È tutto qua” says the little note taped to my computer monitor. It is an Italian phrase meaning “it’s all here”. I first saw it in San Francisco, where it’s the name of an Italian restaurant. I looked up the meaning and was so taken with it that I have kept it in front of me ever since.

Besides my love for all things Italian, the note reminds me to keep life simple. Don’t confuse wants with needs, don’t overcomplicate things. It’s all here already.

Whenever I start thinking that someone else has a nicer house, or a better car, or more success, I remind myself that it’s all here.

Whenever I start fretting about how I look, or stressing over little things that go wrong, I try to remember: it’s all here.

The idea of è tutto qua for me is partially about gratitude, but it’s also about knowing how little we really need to make us happy. The Gallup polling organization surveyed over 130,000 people in 130 countries not long ago, and identified two things that are the biggest predictors of whether people enjoyed their day. The two things were “being able to count on someone for help” and “learned something yesterday”. That’s it.

Once our basic needs (food, shelter, safety) are met, it’s not the extra gadgets and extravagant trips that increase our happiness. It’s as simple as knowing that someone has your back, and that you’re continuing to grow. It’s all here.

The sister I can call for emotional support or advice; the neighbor I can ask to borrow an egg; the friend I can rely on in an emergency: it’s all here.

The ability to read, to listen, to see; to take up skiing when you’re over 40; or to learn (as I did yesterday) that the resveratrol in red wine can protect against hearing loss: it’s all here. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The question is, on how many days can you say, “It’s all here”?  The Gallup people also have something called the Well-Being Index, where they measure the mood of a sample of people every single day. It shows the percentage that had “a lot of happiness/enjoyment without a lot of stress/worry” and the percentage that had “a lot of stress/worry without a lot of enjoyment”. So, for instance, on February 19, 43% said they had a lot of enjoyment without stress, and 14% said they had a lot of stress without enjoyment.

Leo Rosten said, “Happiness comes only when we push our brains and hearts to the farthest reaches of which we are capable.” Maybe the two determinants of enjoyment are dependent on each other. Can we actually be free to learn and grow to our full potential if we don’t have the support of others? And can we have healthy, mutually beneficial relationships if we don’t continue to grow and change?

Are you going to enjoy today? What will you learn? Who will you support, and who supports you?