Three Easy Ways to Live Longer, Happier

By Sitting, Listening, Reading, and Conversing
Part I: # 1 – 3

1. Listen to Birds

In a new study, four German scientists demonstrated that listening to bird song reduces depression, anxiety, and paranoia (Stobbe et al. 2022). It is yet another confirmation that being in Nature provides positive psychological and physiological health benefits.

Reporting on the benefits of Nature is all the rage these days. The Washington Post discussed the German study plus another one last week. The research topic is exploding.

During a wine and cheese soiree at fellow Chaparralians Gregg and Maril Parker’s place in Julian last month, prior to the Volcan Mountain Symposium, we had a wonderful conversation with Richard Louv, the man who energized the children in Nature movement with his influential book, Last Child in the Woods. Over dishes of snacks and rapidly emptying bottles, we discussed some of the new research. When he first started looking into the subject more than 20 years ago, Louv said there were barely a dozen or so papers about the positive impact of being outdoors in Nature. Now, there’s more than 1,500. Maybe Nature is finally having its Renaissance.

Participating in that Renaissance is easy. Find a relaxing space in Nature, preferably between two different habitats, sit down and listen. If you’re lucky enough to have a yard, create your own space. Let wildness emerge. We’ve done this in our own yard à la Kevin Costner (If you build it, he will come); we ripped out the lawn three years ago and planted chaparral. It’s eight feet tall now in some places. There’s a patch in the middle that’s impenetrable. It could become prime bobcat territory; we’re hoping it will be adopted by one of the three kittens born in our neighborhood this year.

Every morning we have coffee on the bird deck, watching Spotted Towhees scamper about searching for the seed we scatter (a western regional blend of seed plus an extra gourmet fruit and nut mix for the Nuthatches), a pair Western Blue Birds raising their family (our next-door neighbor Dave built the nest box for us), and House Finches tussling with Mourning Doves on the feeder platform (we’ve named the pushiest Dove, Boudicca).

Bring your binoculars and listen. Feel the relaxation course through your body. The facts are in. You’ll live happier and longer.

Build it and they will come. Some of our new friends: a Spotted Towhee (ooooo-weeeeee), a Western Blue Bird on the nest box, and a House Finch dancing atop the feeding platform.

2. Building Your Intergenerational Self: Embrace stories from your people’s past, your history, your foundation

Lots of people roam the streets of Cambridge, England; any town, really. But oh, how much more there is than the snapshot images and must-see sights. Read, listen, and learn before you go. The places will speak to you as they did to us during our excursions to England.

As I placed my feet onto the dark, gray stone steps ascending a small corridor into a building where Isaac Newton went to think, to write, to talk, my mind imagined him there, worrying about the plague, thinking in numbers, and creating the mathematical language for the gravitational constant, allowing him to articulate the force that shapes the universe. I reached down and touched the worn curves in stone, curves Newton’s feet had contributed. I gently repeated his passage, one step at a time, talking with him along the way.

Several centuries later, a pub was built in Cambridge, not far from Kings College. When I entered, I felt my dad’s presence. He drank there on occasions, between bombing missions over Europe during WWII, trying to continue on, trying sort through the planes lost, the men gone, the letters to write to parents back home. “Odds were your dad wouldn’t make it back either. And you, my friend, wouldn’t be here,” one his war buddies said to me during a reunion of the 381st. I drank a pint and imagined my dad sitting next to me; visions of 12 O’Clock High, General Savage, and the turning of the Toby Mug, all wandering through my mind, imagining the conflict, the pain in dad’s heart trying so desperately to reconcile the loss, his nerves, the knowledge of taking the boys up there again, tomorrow. I put my arm around his shoulders.

A couple thousand years before, Aquae Sulis, the sacred hot springs baths of Sulis, were established in southwestern Britannia after the Roman Legions of Emperor Claudius re-invaded the island around 43AD. Sulis, a goddess my Celtic ancestors worshiped, was associated by the Romans with their Minerva, by the sword, forever integrating my tribe, our blood, with Rome. Walking along the stone walkway around the baths, we touched the columns, stared into the water, and thought about the Romans and when they left. My ancestors were soon to suffer more invasions by the Saxons, the Vikings, and then the Normans. The Saxons tried to take our island again in the 1940s, but dad helped stop them that time. I considered stripping down and jumping into the baths of Bath; maybe next visit, after a pint or two.

When one knows history, the stories, the myths, travel becomes a pilgrimage and life takes on new meanings; the experience becomes embedded in the bones; one becomes part of the foundation. Much of what we say and do and think in the West is Greek, or Roman. Our wedding ceremonies, the roads we drive, the courtroom dramas we enjoy watching, the stadiums in which our teams play, the words we use, the concrete in our buildings and bridges, the summer months of Julius and Augustus, and the columns that frame nearly every important, powerful building in the Western world, all rise up from a much deeper place than the passing moment we take for granted. Once one knows, one’s sense of belonging expands across the continents, a foundation is formed.

For each of us the story will be different, but just as powerful as the next. The important point in all this is that having a strong sense of history, family history, fosters higher levels of emotional well being because it connects with your tribe, your traditions, your community. Your story has meaning.

In several studies with both pre-adolescents and teenagers,

… knowledge of family history is significantly correlated with internal locus of control, higher self-esteem, better family functioning, greater family cohesiveness, lower levels of anxiety, and lower incidence of behavior problems.

Duke, M. P., A. Lazarus, and R. Fivush (2008)

Shared family narratives build resilience. “That’s true for nations and it’s true for families,” Robyn Fivush concluded in 2020. As we have been building our own story, I can attest that it’s also true for this adult.

Know your story. Find your Indigenous roots. Seek out the ancients. Read. Once you discover your own history, Western, Eastern, or Aboriginal, explore other traditions. The differences between how each views personal independence, unity, family, time, and other living things are vast. Learning about those differences inspires creativity, empathy, and understanding, more of which our world always needs. You’ll discover much of what is seen as new today, was thought and said and experienced thousands of years ago.

Read the classics, a record of our species’ developing consciousness. As Mortimer Adler suggests in the video below, reading challenging texts is the whetstone for the sharpening mind.

Reveal the foundation upon which you stand. And share your discoveries with your family. The world becomes a much more welcoming place.

Historia est magistra vitae. History is the teacher of life.

Cambridge where Newton walked, the 381st, and columnar history.

3. Learn How to Have a Conversation, How to Listen

You know the feeling. The ongoing monologue spouting forth from a friend in which you can’t get a word in edgewise. And yet, when there are lots of openings to contribute to a conversation, were you really listening, or just waiting to talk?

When was the last time, at a gathering of friends, family, or strangers, that someone actually asked about you during one of those many chatter sessions that unfolded as you moved through the room? How many times did you ask about their lives?

The myopic communication style that is exhibited during most verbal exchanges shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, from a very early age, the American educational system teaches us to talk at, rather than with. Much of the verbiage that goes on between us is more like warring battleships lobbing one-ton projectiles at each other, reloading while the opposing crew is letting lose their cluster of munitions.

As with all interactions, surprises alter the outcomes. Once the barrage of verbs and adjectives hits amidships, do the unexpected. Say, “Tell me more.” Or, “What I think I heard you say was… Is that right?”

Discover the joy of conversation, an event in which all players engage and learn from each other. Understand that the reality within your mind actually only exists in one place – your own mind. Explore the realities of others. Beyond building your intellect, engaging conversations foster richer relationships, another factor in living a longer, happier life.

1) We are trained from the beginning to talk at people, not with them. Wah, Wah, Wah. 2) Engaging conversations involve lots of people and lots of questions. 3) Discussions in small groups create abundant opportunities to enjoy the thoughts of others.

Enjoy the insightful discussion below with Mortimer Adler, an American philosopher and prolific writer, on learning how to speak, how to listen.

Part II, #4-6 is forthcoming.

3 Comments on “Three Easy Ways to Live Longer, Happier

  1. Oddly enough, this piece is almost exclusively about how to speak, not how to listen. Ironic.

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