I’ve always liked learning things. Part of the reason is that I’m good at it – at least, if they’re knowledge-based things. But even things I’m not good at, like physical skills, I still enjoy learning. Why?
Turns out our brains are curious, and they enjoy new experiences. Keep Learning is one of the Five Ways to Wellbeing, evidence-based ways of improving your life. (I’ve already covered Connect, Be Active and Take Notice in this series.)
What if I don’t like learning?
Some people have a negative experience of learning at school. Typically, they’re people who like to move around and do things with their hands, and sitting in one place for an hour while someone talks at them is a form of torture.
I had a client once, an actress, who had learning difficulties as a child. New Zealand’s education system is about 10-15 years behind the curve on learning disabilities, and she had been told she was stupid, lazy and so forth because she couldn’t pay attention in class or remember what the teacher had presented. She was still noticeably upset about it years later.
She’d found ways to memorise her lines, but she still had to work harder than her colleagues. (And that’s the thing – kids with learning issues who are genuinely trying are like Alice Through the Looking Glass, running as hard as they can to stay in one place. And then they get called lazy. No wonder they don’t enjoy school.)
School and learning are not the same thing
What I’m leading up to is that there’s a difference between school and learning. We think of schools as places where learning happens, but they’re often not. I know I probably would have learned more, and enjoyed school more, if I’d been able to sit in the library all day and read what interested me with some minimal guidance, rather than sitting in chaotic classrooms plodding through some idealogue’s curriculum. And a lot of what I did learn during my school years was learned outside those classrooms.
To be honest, most of what has been most useful and valuable to me I didn’t learn at school, or if I did it was incidental to being in a classroom. Which is why I bang on about the Missing Curriculum.
All right, with that out of the way let’s talk about what learning is, rather than what it isn’t, and why it adds to your happiness.
Broaden and build
Barbara Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build theory goes well beyond classroom learning to include play, exploration, contentment and love. But at heart, it’s about taking what you already know and can already do, that you enjoy and find fulfilling, and using those as a base for exploring into the surrounding territory.
The thing about broaden-and-build (which is very well researched as an approach to happiness, by the way) is that dwelling on these positives puts you into a resourceful and creative state of mind. Focussing on your fears and worries, on the other hand, puts you into an unresourceful state where you’re naturally inclined to play it “safe” and not try anything new – to fight or run away.
But in a modern, complex, rapidly changing society, the people who thrive are exactly the ones who can meet new challenges creatively and resourcefully, who have more options available to them because their mental resources are not just consumed with looking for the exit. A primitive instinct to be safe will actually cause you more problems than it solves.
The joy of mastery
Our brains are wired to enjoy mastering new things. That’s what’s made us so successful as a species.
And surfing at the edge of our capabilities – where what we are doing is difficult enough to be fully engaging, but not so difficult that we can’t achieve it – produces the experience called “flow”.
One of the things I love to do in my day job in IT is design solutions to problems. I get really psyched about creating a design that will solve the problem reliably with a minimum of setup. I get into flow when I’m doing that, or when I’m writing fiction and the characters are pretty much carrying the scene forward for themselves, or when I’m blogging and the topic is close to my heart and something I know well.
I’d love to be that good at something that I use my body for. That might be next year’s goal.
Point is, learning and being at the edge of your abilities can be incredibly fun and motivational. School doesn’t achieve that very often, but you can do it for yourself.
Education vs Alzheimer’s
My mother is in her early 80s, and still as mentally sharp as ever. I had a conversation with her a couple of years ago in which she talked about two near-contemporaries of hers who had been mentally stifled by their husbands (this would be probably 40 years ago), and had developed dementia very young. Her theory was that the two things were connected.
I later found out that she was probably right. Apparently each year of education after high school reduces your chance of developing Alzheimer’s (so there you go, school is good for something).
The thing is, my mother was the only woman in her university science classes in the late 1940s, and there weren’t even that many women studying arts. It was another several decades before educating women to university level became routine, and those women are not yet in the Alzheimer’s age range. (My grandfather was asked why he was wasting his money to educate his daughter. “She’ll only get married,” they said. His answer was that he’d never found that education was very heavy to carry around.)
So there are three reasons to keep learning. Firstly, by building on your existing knowledge and experience, you put yourself into a positive, resourceful frame of mind. Secondly, mastery and “flow” is enjoyable and motivating in and of itself. And thirdly, keeping your brain active is good for it, just like keeping your body active is good for it (and for your brain, for that matter).
We’re heading rapidly to the end of the year. What are you going to learn next year?
Keep learning. And enjoy.
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