Being Bored

I read a great article this morning by Heidi Grant Halvorson titled How Happiness Changes with Age. She succinctly states that it’s okay to be boring. From her perspective, this realization isn’t for the young at heart; it’s for those of us who have experienced youth and are now ready to try something else, something that brings about “peace and relaxation” rather than “giddy excitement”.

She writes about a recent set of studies wherein

…psychologists Cassie Mogliner, Sepandar Kamvar, and Jennifer Aaker looked for evidence of how our sense of happiness changes with age by analyzing twelve million personal blogs… Older bloggers were more inclined to describe happy experiences as moments of feeling peaceful, relaxed, calm, or relieved – the way you feel when you are getting along with your spouse, staying healthy, and able to make your mortgage payments. This kind of happiness is less about what lies ahead, and more about being content in your current circumstances.

I get contentment, but I don’t think being content is being boring. Maybe her argument is based on the perspective of our younger selves, the “previous me” that was more ambitious, always thinking and acting on what is possible in the future rather than what is currently happening.

I get the part about slowing down. One of my defined ethics is the “moral of slow,” to do everything a bit slower for the sake of paying closer attention to what is happening. But that doesn’t imply boredom. In fact, that slower pace helps dissipate any sense of boredom, because the slower self is hopefully a more aware self—aware of the stimulus that is within arm’s reach.

Occasionally, I’ll ask my students if writing is boring, and they will give me an honest response—“yes”. It’s an opportunity to talk about why it is boring: how they don’t believe they have an audience, how writing is formulaic, how they have nothing interesting to say—many of the messages they learned in secondary schooling. To get their attention, I tell them that I haven’t been bored for 26 years (because that’s how long I’ve been married, and my wife is very engaging).

Engagement: it’s not about having amazing stimulation. It’s not about the smart phone and its continual push of customized data, the multimedia madness, the ongoing digital stream. Engagement is about point of view, perspective. I like to think that I can be just as engaged (if not more so) watching the bird feeder outside the living room window as I can when I’m on Facebook. But it takes a disciplined perspective, a point of view that embraces the waiting for another bird to land on the feeder to eat.

Is the waiting part of watching a bird feeder boring? Not if you understand the nature of watching birds. My cats love watching the birds feeding outside the living room window. They are the ones that taught me how to do it.

I think Halvorson’s article has more to do with happiness than boredom. How you reach a time in your life where your sense of what makes you happy is what you once thought would bore you to tears. Expectations change, aspirations change, the willingness to enjoy what is right in front of you changes. A change for the good. I cannot imagine what my life would be like if I was still trying to aspire the way I tried in my twenties and thirties. That would not only be unsustainable, it would be miserable.

I tried finding a picture on my computer that symbolizes “boredom”, but out of the thousands of photos to choose from, I couldn’t find one. Maybe that’s because we don’t tend to take pictures of people being bored. But really, I think it’s because there’s not much boredom going on around me. My cats aren’t bored; they may look bored as they sleep through the afternoon—but I don’t believe its boredom. It’s just catdome. Which is why the closest photo I could find that symbolizes boredom is a photo of Lilian, my cat.

Spring upgrades for the road bike

A large part of my life revolves around bicycles. Bikes serve as a form of transportation to work, a vehicle for exercise, an excuse to get outside, a way to spend time with others… there are countless reasons to ride a bike. Which is why I have many bikes. Which is why I recently performed some maintenance on “The Madone.”

In 2005, I purchased a Trek Madone 5.2. It was an investment in the commitment to cycling. Before this bike, I rode an older steel-frame Schwinn. The Schwinn was (and still is) a great bike, but it was time to upgrade and invest in a vehicle designed for longer rides to distant destinations.

There is no way of estimating how many miles are on The Madone. “Countless” seems to be the only word that fits. Every year, the bike needs a new set of tires. Every other year, it needs a new chain. This year, it also needed a new chain ring for the crankset; the original crank simply wore out from use.

It also received a new rear cassette, an 11-28, one that provides a greater range in gearing. You change one part on a bike like this, and it alters the entire ride experience.

With a new chain ring, new chain, and new cassette, the bike is set to go for another decade, with added emphasis on the concept of “countless”.

Winter into Spring

When I was in high school, I listened to George Winston’s piano solos. My Dad had all of his albums, as well as a Bang & Olufsen turntable, so I would plug in the headphones, sit back in a lounge chair, and enjoy. In 1982, the year I graduated from high school, Winston published Winter into Spring (you can listen to the entire album on YouTube). The track titled “Rain” was a special favorite.

The song was running through my head Saturday morning; Sue and I walked Rush to Colectivo for a cup of coffee, and the flowers were pushing up through snow. Winter into spring.

It’s nice when memory connects important moments in the past with the present, giving the present moment greater relevance.

Here’s a video from last Saturday of Sue and Rush playing in the backyard. Rush is ready for spring.

 

Realizations of scale

When my student Maya George helped me build this blogsite, she created the logo—a bicycle on a horizon with the phrase “realizations of scale” circling the rear wheel. She did her research to build the website, including a read of The Descent into Happiness. In the book, I make reference to Duggan’s strategic intuition theory, a method by which one can have “realizations of scale,” or ideas that are so big that they can solve large, defined problems. If the problem is big enough, it qualifies as an “epiphany”, though the method works for all sizes and kinds of problems.

I’m glad Maya chose this tagline, because it gets at the purpose of both the book and the blog. I like having realizations of scale, I like it when students have realizations of scale—I like it when anyone has realizations of scale. Each of these blog posts is a realization of scale. The Descent into Happiness ended up being a realization of scale—a much larger scale since I gave myself a month to solve some large, defined problems. But regardless of how large the problem is that you are trying to solve with a “realization”, the point is to have the realization—and then act on it.

The generation of this blog-site is an action based on a realization. The problem I had was what I would do with all of the ideas I had as a result of writing the book, the thought process that was the result of writing the book, a thought process I did not anticipate. It’s good to have the realization, but it’s better to act on it. Otherwise, it’s just an idea, and ideas don’t go very far if they are not put into action.

Note: the above photo was taken while I biked up Logan Pass in Glacier National Park. Sometimes big spaces engender big ideas.

Walking Rush

As a Humanities professor who teaches at a school of engineering, I often talk to students about the need to engage in reflective thought. It’s a critical part of the learning process—to connect the information that is new (short-term memory) to information that is not so new (long-term memory). The brain is designed to make these connections, but we often interfere with the process by overstimulating ourselves. If we’re always on our digital devices, and if don’t take the opportunity once in a while to stare out the window to reflect, then “learning” doesn’t take place to the same degree.

That’s why I love having Rush in my life. Rush is a year old Australian Shephard mix we rescued last October. Our last dog, Lucy, had passed away the month before, and I missed having a dog. It’s really a lifestyle: if you have a dog, then you have to feed it, play with it, and most important, take it for long walks. Having Rush means that, two or three times a day, I need to leash up his harness and take him out into the neighborhood. It’s good exercise for us both; it’s a chance to simply go for a nice long walk. Without Rush, I doubt I’d walk that much, and going for walks, on a consistent, scheduled basis, provides ample opportunity to engage in reflective thought process.

It’s also an opportunity to get back into nature. The photos in this post were taken at Lapham Peak, a state park outside of Delafield, Wisconsin. It’s a bit of a drive to get there, but it’s worth it to watch Rush run off leash in the woods. It’s also worth it to feel my brain shift into reflective mode as we walk the paths through the woods.

I’ll encourage my students to get a dog when they graduate, just so they have the opportunity to take it outside several times a day. We need to get outside, and having a friend that needs it too is a great impetus for reflection.

Rush walks down the path

What’s coming down the road

book coverThis April, I’ll publish The Descent into Happiness, a book written last summer while I bicycled from Seattle to Milwaukee. The book is a travel narrative, chronicling the events that took place while I did a solo, self-supported month-long bike ride. But it’s also a book about the thought process that goes into such a ride: how solitude is a blessing, the need to slow down, the pursuit of the big picture.

The book is written for a general audience—but I’m a professor, and it is my intent that the book will also serve as a textbook for some classes I teach, courses such as Ethics and Creative Thinking. The book will be in print soon, but I could not wait to share it with my students, so I provided them a preliminary draft of the work. The benefit was mutual: they received a text that better articulated the ideas covered in the course curriculum, and I received some much-needed audience analysis on the manuscript.

I had students in my Creative Thinking class write a review of the book. One of my students, Shannon Mahoney, provided some insightful feedback in her analysis. In the following excerpt from her essay, Shannon responds to an anecdote that takes place early in book, one in which I’m trying to navigate my way with the use of some bike-specific road-maps:

We may be able to try to predict how the road is going to bend from how it is bent in the past, but the further down the road we get, the more unpredictable it becomes. In a literal comparison, Howell talks about that in the beginning of his trip: he was using a map that was given to him of all the common routes cyclists take along the path. However, he was so focused on the map and not straying from the guidelines that he was missing the experience of the true adventure that he was on. Overcoming the difference between wanting to know where your life is going and truly experiencing life as you are living it is a struggle that people need to balance out. The hard truth is that the future cannot be predicted: living life as it goes on is a better method.

This is what I hope for from students: you introduce an idea, and they expand on it based on their interpretation of text. In this case, the text is a happy blend between The Descent into Happiness and Shannon’s life experiences. Is it better to keep your eyes focused on what’s coming down the road, or should you focus on the present moment—and let that be the guide to your destination? I’m glad Shannon raised the question; it’s one that generated some great in-class discussion, since Shannon agreed to let me share her essay with the class.

Welcome!

Welcome to DavidHowell.org.

I like writing. It’s something I do on a daily basis, usually in a journal, an ongoing document wherein I am the target audience, a vehicle for tracking ideas and events that have meaning. This year, part of the journal turned into a book that’s going to be published soon by Blue Ear Books, an outgrowth of the journal entries I drafted last July while biking from Seattle to Milwaukee. The ride was a “thought experiment”—I wanted to answer some big questions, so I gave myself enough time and space for the answers to arrive.

The problem with writing a book is that it ends, even though the ideas still present themselves. I still capture them in the journal, but I want to share the ideas with others through a new medium. That’s why I’m starting this blog.

I want to thank a student of mine, Maya George, for helping get the website up and running. I agreed to create an independent study that would enable her to demonstrate her Technical Communication skills, and she agreed to help me start this website as part of her course requirements. She created the brand, the graphic user interface, provided loads of advice… a great example of the student educating the teacher. Check out her work.