Our lives are full of things. In fact, from a things perspective, we're probably living in the Age of Things -- an unparalleled richness of stuff, whether it be physical objects or available experiences. But not all things are created equal.
I had casually identified things that I liked over the years -- hobbies, experiences, activities -- without thinking too much about why some things brought me so much satisfaction and fulfilment, while other things didn't deliver. Why, for instance, could I spend a long and tiring weekend of mushroom hunting and feel so refreshed and recharged for the week ahead, while spending a weekend in other pursuits (maybe a movie, dinner and drinks, or vacationing) would feel hit or miss? Some activities and experiences just had an x-factor -- something that made them fulfilling and deeply enjoyable.
It was a passing comment from my wife that really got me thinking more about it. We had recently raised some chicks into near-adult chickens, and had moved them from a crate inside the kitchen to their permanent outside residence in our Seattle backyard. Standing outside the chicken run, we watched as the birds explored the space, scratched, pecked, and strutted around, all while emitting tentative croaks and clucks. We had been standing silently for some time when she said, "Watching chickens is relaxing...like watching fire."
Chickens and Fire
Watching fire is relaxing -- mesmerizing even. Why is that so? Besides being visually intricate, fire appeals on a very primitive level. It warms. It cooks. It represents some measure of safety, security, and comfort. And it has represented these things for the human species for...well, always. Evidence of million year old cookfires has been unearthed. Against that timeline, our non-reliance on fire is a historical blip. It seemed reasonable to expect that human beings have a predisposition towards fire, and that such a predisposition would even have been favored as a positive trait for survival. Turns out this isn't a novel concept. In any case, perhaps this helps explain why many people enjoy sitting in front of a fire -- it's an experience that tickles something old, something deep, something central to our very species.
So what do chickens and fire have in common? Our relationship to chickens, from a historical perspective, is definitely long lived. Over millenia human beings have domesticated animals, an arrangement that provides many mutual benefits (setting aside for the moment tragic and cruel downsides). Up until the modern period, with the dramatic urbanization of human population, contact with domestic animals would have been commonplace, and dependence on them an everyday reality. Maybe watching chickens evoked similar primitive responses -- safety, security, comfort -- in the same way fire did. Maybe chickens, and other domestic animals, trigger reactions in people that predate our modern sensibilities.
Other Real Things
I now had a list of two things -- domestic animals, fire -- that I thought might be important, might be "real things." I wondered if there were others. I started brainstorming, and I asked those around me to think about it as well. The answers that came back were remarkably consistent, and with those answers some other "pointers" to real things started to show up.
The first pointer was the "Has it been true longer in human history than it has not?" test. This test is about looking past the incredibly brief modern period and asking whether a longer pattern of human importance or value is evident. Using this test helps identify "water" as another real thing, for example -- many people I surveyed described some experience with water as invoking relaxation, attention, engagement, or the like. They may have described a river or stream, a lake, or the ocean. Another thing that shows up with this test are hunter/gatherer activities. People described feeling their senses engaged in a heightened way when out picking berries, hunting for mushrooms, or pursuing game. These experiences and activiies tap into human skills and abilities more important to our past than to our present, perhaps, but still lurking under the surface, still potent.
Another pointer that emerged was the "What do children do naturally?" test. This test helps confirm fire and water experiences -- just watch the endless fascination and play that children develop around fire (much to their parents' dismay) and water. This test also helps find things like soil (for adults this might look like gardening, for kids this might look like mud pies), and music.
Over time a third pointer has been the "Is there evidence that supports the experience?" test. I've enjoyed finding research that explains and supports some of the reactions people have to real things, and I'll enjoy sharing those findings through the blog.
More Real Things
So my list of real things has been growing, and I'm excited to share it with you (look for the next post!). But as I started developing the list of real things, I also started to ask myself how much I was ensuring that my life was filled with these experiences. I wondered if I would experience more happiness and satisfaction if I increased the amount of real things in my life. So I began looking for ways to work more real things into my everyday life. Having a fire in the front yard on a fall evening, an afternoon canoe outing with the kids on the weekend, a hunt for mushrooms while on my daily commute walk to the bus stop -- brief, accessible doses of real things. I'm loving it, and I think you'll find similar satisfaction if you can work more real things into your life, too. I hope through sharing this blog you'll get some ideas and inspiration for actvities and experiences that involve real things. And perhaps, like me, you'll find that adding more real things is part of the solution to building a satisfying life.