June 29, 2020

Stuck in a lineup at the store? Consider the evolutionary benefits of waiting

New book by UCalgary classics professor Peter Toohey brings new perspective to a pandemic world on hold

In this current COVID-19 world, so much of our lives seem on hold. From lineups at the grocery store and the everyday toll of social distancing to the fate of schools and the entire economy, we are all now in a state of waiting. Indefinitely, it would seem. Who knows how and when this pandemic will play itself out? One day at a time, we wait.

It’s in these strange and uncomfortable times that Dr. Peter Toohey, PhD, a professor in the Department of Classics and Religion at the University of Calgary, finds himself releasing his latest book, entitled Hold On: The Life, Science and Art of Waiting. An expert on the history of emotions, having written volumes on jealousy, boredom, and melancholy, Toohey’s work on waiting seemed to be a natural next step in his research pursuits and he’s been writing the book for the past five years.

He never dreamed how hugely relevant it would become. Suddenly Toohey’s book has taken on a greater significance than he would have ever anticipated.

“Though this wasn’t my intention, since we’re all now left waiting, maybe this book can help us to better manage waiting,” says Toohey.

I break the experience of waiting down to its components — patience, boredom, dread, anticipation, and so on — and this shows us there can actually be a lot of benefits to it.

“People don’t like the idea of waiting because it’s thought to be a boring experience, but boredom is a separate experience and waiting is not necessarily boring. You can be waiting for your birthday and that’s exciting when you’re a kid. Or you can be waiting for a bill to come that you know you can’t pay. That’s dreadful. You can be waiting to be hanged. That’s probably terrifying.”

One of Hold On’s most innovative ideas is the notion that waiting is not simply “a situation that happens to us” — rather, it qualifies as an emotion. And all emotions serve a purpose within the human brain, giving us certain evolutionary advantages.

“I think our capacity to manage waiting, or, its capacity to manage us, can define so much of our happiness in life,” says Toohey. “And so much of our success as well.”

One of the main evolutionary advantages of waiting is in our capacity to bond and pair. In this respect, Toohey stresses the link to serotonin in our brains. Serotonin is an important chemical and neurotransmitter in the human body which contributes to our feelings of happiness. Low levels have been linked to depression. The experience of waiting with another person can often be a factor in bonding and it seems to build up our serotonin levels.

“Whether it be in marriage, parenthood or friendships, waiting seems to play an incredibly important role, and that’s related to the chemical levels in our brain,” he says. “You can see it with parents and their young children. We play seemingly endless games with them that sometimes drive us out of our skulls with boredom. But we do it because it’s pleasing to them. And it’s this sort of activity that builds up the bonds with your child."

It seems that our most important relationships in life stand or fall on our capacity to wait.

This becomes all the more significant today as we socially isolate with our families, or, find ourselves standing with them in long queues. “If you’re with your family and you’re standing around for 20 minutes in a lineup, why not take this time to talk with your children or your partner?” says Toohey. “Reconnect with them. Chat away.”

As we have found ourselves on hold during the pandemic it’s become more clear than ever that some people are better at waiting than others. Some are angry and annoyed when waiting while others are more prone to be patient and find the joys in the experience. Indeed, Toohey asserts that some brains are better equipped for waiting than others. “Some brains are just better endowed with the brain chemicals that enable waiting,” he says.

So does that make patience a virtue? “Not really,” says Toohey. “I would say it’s more of a survival mechanism. And as humans we can be good at it, if we let it happen. But we can also struggle with it. And if we fight this version of waiting, we might be making our current situation all the more difficult.”

Hold On: The Life, Science and Art of Waiting

A new book by classics professor Dr. Peter Toohey, Hold On: The Life, Science and Art of Waiting finds itself especially relevant during the current pandemic.

Book image courtesy of Oxford University Press. Pictured is Greta Garbo in the movie Grand Hotel.