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Darwin's Regret

Darwin's regret: Not enough poetry and music

My mind has changed during the last twenty or thirty years... Now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry… I have also almost lost any taste for pictures or music… My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts...

If I had to live my life again I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week… The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.

The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882 (pp. 138-139)

I’ve long been a huge Charles Darwin fan. Indeed, my broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions draws on his famous theory of natural selection to explain how joy, love, interest and other fleeting pleasant states evolved as part of universal human nature: These states, however subtle, expanded our ancestor’s awareness and actions in ways that little by little reshaped their character and built their survival skills.

So when twice within the span of a few weeks this particular Darwin quote surfaced for me, I paid attention. The first time was when Robert Klitgaard, then-President of Claremont Graduate University opened this year’s Stauffer Symposium with it (Applying the Science of Positive Psychology to Improve Society), and then it later struck as a “Sunbeam” in The Sun, my favorite literary magazine. Both times I was moved by Darwin’s humility and sensed the need to connect with his regret at a personal level. And just as I was mulling over Darwin’s lament, gestating this blog entry, by chance, I found myself standing over his gravestone in Westminster Abbey on a family trip to London.

Darwin was a grand intellectual. Although I’m no Darwin, as a university professor, I too live the “life of the mind.” It’s no secret that I love this life. It overflows with captivating opportunities – to explore, synthesize, postulate, predict, test, publish, and, yes, pontificate. Yet, like all else, the life of the mind also comes with costs. Perhaps the biggest cost is, as Darwin puts it, the enfeebling of emotions. It’s humbling to learn that even one of the world’s foremost emotion scholars worried about his own emotional development.

Yet producing general laws about emotions is not the same as living by them. Like many academics, I’ve been sucked down into my own “workaholic” jags from time to time, spending too much time in my head. When I do, I even monopolize family dinner conversations with my latest hypotheses or empirical results. My husband, feeling lonely after a string of such benders tells me that his head is full, but his heart is empty. That’s when I feel the sting of Darwin’s regret all too well.

Just as we should enjoy all things in moderation, any strength becomes a weakness if not balanced by complementary pursuits. Indeed, I’ve found that the best “treatment” for my own addiction to work is to escape the life of the mind – by meditating, running in the woods, dancing, cooking, playing with or like a kid – or otherwise enlivening my physical senses.

Darwin’s belated self-prescription was to have read more poetry or listened to more music. Ironically, even before I’d encountered this particular Darwin quote, I’d come up with a similar way to stoke the fading embers of positivity: To build portfolios of objects and activities that elicit specific positive emotions in us and to visit these portfolios regularly, even daily, as described in Positivity. Over time, just as we are what we eat, we are what we feel. If our entrenched habits of work – however enjoyable in their own right – bypass vast territories of positivity, our minds and character atrophy in predictable ways. I’d learned from Darwin’s sharpest theory. Now I hope I can learn from his sharpest regret – to step outside my own mind and celebrate beauty in all its human, earthly, and spiritual forms each day.

Barbara Fredrickson is the author of Positivity and Kenan Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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