For a child, being carefree is intrinsic to a well-lived life

Do adults need to be more carefree, in order for their lives to go well?

Why being carefree is intrinsic to a child living well
Photo by MI PHAM on Unsplash

Some people are lucky enough to look back at their childhood with affection for a time in life without much stress and anxiety.

They might think of long hours spent playing in the backyard free of worry, or pursuing projects and relationships without apprehension or fear. Such tender memories are often in stark contrast to the lives many lead as adults, where stress and anxiety seem to dominate.

The fact that many struggle to be carefree in adulthood raises a number of interesting questions about the relationship between carefreeness and the good life. Is being carefree a special good of childhood? Is it something that confers meaning on the life of a child, without doing the same for adults? Or do adults need to be more carefree, and so be more like children, in order for their lives to go well? Most importantly, if carefreeness is indeed a necessary precondition for a good life, why exactly is that so?

As a parent of two young children, and someone who works on family philosophy, I have recently turned my attention to the question of what it means for childhoods to go well. Thinking about the goods of parental love and education, I have realised that there is something special about being carefree that makes it a necessary component of a well-lived childhood. Yet when it comes to adults, I have found that some can lead wonderful, meaningful lives without being carefree.

Such asymmetry between childhood and adulthood is a result of children and adults being different kinds of creatures. Unlike an adult, a child doesn't have the authority to endorse the valuable goods in her life, if positive emotions towards these goods are lacking. This means that if a child is experiencing stress and anxiety, she will lack the mental space needed for positive emotions towards valuable projects and relationships to arise. As a result, the child will be in a position where such projects and relationships don't count as constitutive goods.

To see why children's lives are necessarily impoverished if they aren't carefree, when the same is not true of adults, we first need to get our definitions clear: who counts as a child, what does carefreeness amount to, and what does it mean for human lives to go well? A child is a creature who has already started developing practical reasoning skills, but not developed them to a degree such that she can take on some of the rights and responsibilities of adulthood. Childhood then is that stage of life that follows infancy and ends before adolescence. I refer to carefreeness as a disposition not to feel stressed and anxious, even though there will be moments in a person's life where such negative emotions are present. A carefree person is therefore someone who doesn't experience stress and anxiety very often, both as a result of her psychology and of her personal circumstances.

Finally, when thinking about what it means for people to lead good lives, I endorse so-called 'hybrid accounts of wellbeing': a good life is one where a person engages with valuable projects and relationships, and finds them attractive. For example, philosophy will contribute to my leading a good life if it's true that philosophy is valuable (where its value is not a function of my attitudes but rather something else internal to philosophy) and if it's true that I endorse philosophy as a profession. In a world where philosophy is a profoundly misguided enterprise or where I would rather be doing something else with my time, philosophy ceases to contribute to my leading a good life.

So much for preliminaries. The question we must now address is: how is carefreeness necessary for a good childhood without also being necessary for a good adulthood?

Let's start with adults. Unlike children, adults can appreciate the valuable projects and relationships in their lives even when positive emotions are lacking. This is because adults are the sorts of creatures who can endorse many aspects of their lives merely due to how well they fit within their overall conception of what a worthwhile life looks like. A neurotic author who writes brilliant novels despite finding the process painful can still endorse the project of writing under stress and anxiety because she knows that these negative emotions will render the work deeper than it would otherwise be. A brain surgeon operating on the worst types of cancers knows that the stakes in her job are too high for her to approach life in a carefree manner. She is willing to trade carefreeness for a life of achievement in medicine.

In fact, we can evaluate the lives of adults who are not carefree as positive precisely because we know that an adult's more complex evaluative capacities (eg, for self-reflection; to acquire relevant moral knowledge; to maintain an adequate sense of time; to recognise foreseeable costs, risks and opportunities attached to certain actions, etc) allow her to endorse valuable projects and relationships even when positive emotions towards them are lacking.

The same is not true of children. Although they also need to endorse the valuable projects and relationships in their lives for these to qualify as contributions to living well, an endorsement in their case arises when children feel positive emotions towards such projects and relationships. Children simply lack the requisite evaluative capacities to be able to endorse valuable projects and relationships merely due to how well they fit within an overall life plan.

A child who volunteers to care for a relative with dementia for a couple of hours a day can't authoritatively endorse such a project if she finds it stressful. Unlike the writer or the doctor who can step back to evaluate how stressful projects fit with her overall conception of a good life, and then authoritatively endorse them, a child's evaluative capacities are not sufficiently mature and developed for her to do the same. She is therefore unable to assess such caring obligations against a background of adequate self-knowledge, realistic sense of competing options, sufficient level of moral knowledge, and adequate understanding of the costs, risks and opportunities involved. That's why she might end up, say, giving unreasonable weight to pleasing her family, or making a mistake about what morality requires. She might also have no sense of the opportunity costs involved, and not appreciate that time caring for this relative will take away precious time doing something else that is both valuable and enjoyable. Such mistakes are not avoidable but a direct result of the kind of creature a child is – a creature who is not yet in a position to go ahead with stressful and anxiety-inducing projects because she is able to produce authoritative reasons in their favour.

The question now arises: is it possible for a child to be not carefree in general yet still feel positive emotions towards valuable projects and relationships? Work by psychologists such as Ed Diener, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, suggests that positive and negative emotions are not independent from each other at any given point in time. This means that these emotions tend to suppress each other, and that the more stress and anxiety a child feels, the less mental space she will have for the development of positive emotions towards valuable projects and relationships. Therefore, a child who isn't carefree lacks the mental space required for the enjoyment of all the good things in her life.

If we want children to endorse play time, education, friendships and familial relationships by feeling joy, pleasure, amusement and delight towards them – and so lead good lives as children – then we'd better create the conditions for children not only to access such goods but also to be carefree. This, in turn, requires governments that are willing to take mental health seriously from an early age and create policies that put carefreeness centrestage of what it means for a childhood to go well.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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Mind & Brain

This article was originally published on Big Think Edge.

Problem-solving skills are in demand. Every job posting lists them under must-have qualifications, and every job candidate claims to possess them, par excellence. Young entrepreneurs make solutions to social and global problems the heart of their mission statements, while parents and teachers push for curricula that encourage critical-thinking methods beyond solving for x.

It's ironic then that we continue to cultivate habits that stunt our ability to solve problems. Take, for example, the modern expectation to be "always on." We push ourselves to always be working, always be producing, always be parenting, always be promoting, always be socializing, always be in the know, always be available, always be doing. It's too much, and when things are always on all the time, we deplete the mental resources we need to truly engage with challenges.

If we're serious about solving problems, at work and in our personal lives, then we need to become more adept at tuning out so we can hone in.

Solve problems with others (occasionally)

A side effect of being always on is that we are rarely alone. We're connected through the ceaseless chirps of friends texting, social media buzzing, and colleagues pinging us for advice everywhere we go. In some ways, this is a boon. Modern technologies mediate near endless opportunities for collective learning and social problem-solving. Yet, such cooperation has its limits according to a 2018 study out of Harvard Business School.

In the study, participants were divided into three group types and asked to solve traveling salesman problems. The first group type had to work on the problems individually. The second group type exchanged notes after every round of problem-solving while the third collaborated after every three rounds.

The researchers found that lone problem-solvers invented a diverse range of potential solutions. However, their solutions varied wildly in quality, with some being true light bulb moments and others burnt-out duds. Conversely, the always-on group took advantage of their collective learning to tackle more complex problems more effectively. But social influence often led these groups to prematurely converge around a single idea and abandon potentially brilliant outliers.

It was the intermittent collaborators who landed on the Goldilocks strategy. By interacting less frequently, individual group members had more time to nurture their ideas so the best could shine. But when they gathered together, the group managed to improve the overall quality of their solutions thanks to collective learning.

In presenting their work, the study's authors question the value of always-on culture—especially our submissiveness to intrusions. "As we replace those sorts of intermittent cycles with always-on technologies, we might be diminishing our capacity to solve problems well," Ethan Bernstein, an associate professor at Harvard Business School and one of the study's authors, said in a press release.

These findings suggest we should schedule time to ruminate with our inner geniuses and consult the wisdom of the crowd. Rather than dividing our day between productivity output and group problem-solving sessions, we must also create space to focus on problems in isolation. This strategy provides the best of both worlds. It allows us to formulate our ideas before social pressure can push us to abandon them. But it doesn't preclude the group knowledge required to refine those ideas.

And the more distractions you can block out or turn off, the more working memory you'll have to direct at the problem.

A problem-solving booster

The next step is to dedicate time to not dealing with problems. Counterintuitive as it may seem, setting a troublesome task aside and letting your subconscious take a crack at it improves your conscious efforts later.

How should we fill these down hours? That's up to you, but research has shown time and again that healthier habits produce hardier minds. This is especially true regarding executive functions—a catchall term that includes a person's ability to self-control, meet goals, think flexibly, and, yes, solve problems.

"Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid-intelligence tasks. These tasks test the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly, improvising off previously learned material to solve a new problem. Essentially, exercise improves a whole host of abilities prized in the classroom and at work," writes John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist at the University of Washington.

One such study, published in the Frontiers in Neuroscience, analyzed data collected from more than 4,000 British adults. After controlling for variables, it found a bidirectional relationship between exercise and higher levels of executive function over time. Another study, this one published in the Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, compared fitness data from 128 adults with brain scans taken as they were dual-tasking. Its findings showed regular exercisers sported more active executive regions.

Research also demonstrates a link between problem-solving, healthy diets, and proper sleep habits. Taken altogether, these lifestyle choices also help people manage their stress—which is known to impair problem-solving and creativity.

Of course, it can be difficult to untangle the complex relationship between cause and effect. Do people with healthy life habits naturally enjoy strong executive functions? Or do those habits bolster their mental fitness throughout their lives?

That's not an easy question to answer, but the Frontiers in Neuroscience study researchers hypothesize that it's a positive feedback loop. They posit that good sleep, nutritious food, and regular exercise fortify our executive functions. In turn, more potent executive decisions invigorate healthier life choices. And those healthy life choices—you see where this is going.

And while life choices are ultimately up to individuals, organizations have a supportive role to play. They can foster cultures that protect off-hours for relaxing, incentivize healthier habits with PTO, and prompt workers to take time for exercise beyond the usual keyboard calisthenics.

Nor would such initiatives be entirely selfless. They come with the added benefit of boosting a workforce's collective problem-solving capabilities.

Live and learn and learn some more

Another advantage of tuning out is the advantage to pursue life-long learning opportunities. People who engage in creative or problem-solving activities in their downtime—think playing music, puzzles, and even board games—show improved executive functions and mental acuity as they age. In other words, by learning to enjoy the act of problem-solving, you may enhance your ability to do so.

Similarly, lifelong learners are often interdisciplinary thinkers. By diving into various subjects, they can come to understand the nuances of different skills and bodies of knowledge to see when ideas from one field may provide a solution to a problem in another. That doesn't mean lifelong learners must become experts in every discipline. On the contrary, they are far more likely to understand where the limits of their knowledge lie. But those self-perceived horizons can also provide insight into where collaboration is necessary and when to follow someone else's lead.

In this way, lifelong learning can be key to problem-solving in both business and our personal lives. It pushes us toward self-improvement, gives us an understanding of how things work, hints at what's possible, and, above all, gives us permission to tune out and focus on what matters.

Cultivate lifelong learning at your organization with lessons 'For Business' from Big Think Edge. At Edge, more than 350 experts, academics, and entrepreneurs come together to teach essential skills in career development and lifelong learning. Heighten your problem-solving aptitude with lessons such as:

  • Make Room for Innovation: Key Characteristics of Innovative Companies, with Lisa Bodell, Founder and CEO, FutureThink, and Author, Why Simple Wins
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  • The Power of Onlyness: Give Your People Permission to Co-Create the Future, with Nilofer Merchant, Marketing Expert and Author, The Power of Onlyness
  • How to Build a Talent-First Organization: Put People Before Numbers, with Ram Charan, Business Consultant
  • The Science of Successful Things: Case Studies in Product Hits and Flops, with Derek Thompson, Senior Editor, The Atlantic, and Author, Hit Makers

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