Teaching Old Dog New Tricks – Benefits of Lifelong Learning (5 min read)
“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving” – Albert Einstein
Research conclusively shows that your education – its length and quality – is a very accurate predictor of your health and longevity. Numerous factors are at play. More education generally leads to better paid and less physically demanding jobs. It gives us the opportunity and the knowhow to practise healthier lifestyles and makes us more resourceful in looking after ourselves. In addition, education boosts mental health and cognitive function, leading to a more fulfilling and happier life. The link here is between learning and happiness.
Your brain is like a muscle – lifelong learning helps to keep it conditioned and agile. “Cells that fire together, wire together.” Studies have shown that learning new skills and having new experiences creates new electrochemical pathways in our brain, reshaping its neural networks. Repeated practice makes these connections more defined, effective and powerful. This is known as neuroplasticity – proving that you can teach an old dog new tricks!
Fortunately, benefits of learning are not confined to formal education. Acquiring a new skill, joining a club or discovering new ways to utilise your existing skills offer equivalent rewards. It does not have to cost anything either – have you considered bartering skills tuition with your colleagues, friends or neighbours? Swap language practice for software skills, for example. And with multitude of online courses, clubs and distance learning, it has never been easier to learn something new.
“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we are curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths” – Walt Disney
Besides improved health, longevity and job-prospects, learning has many additional benefits:
1. Opens new opportunities. New skills and experiences open new doors, facilitating professional and personal development. Acquiring transferable skills and building on your strengths and talents gives you choice and widens your options. The key is becoming fully aware of your opportunities and limitations. Then making proactive decisions about your current and future direction. Where are you now? Where do you want to be? How will you get there? Figure out what you are lacking, make an action plan and start as soon as you can.
2. Builds our competence and confidence. As human beings, we have a natural desire to learn and progress. Psychologists call this “mastery” or “self-actualisation” (the final level of psychological development in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). Learning new skills improves our resourcefulness, self-efficacy and coping mechanisms. Moreover, your proficiency at your existing skills will benefit from your newly acquired skills. It is akin to constructing a large jigsaw puzzle, where each piece makes the overall picture clearer. Construct a vision of what you want to achieve, break it down into manageable steps and begin with the first step.
3. Boosts our creativity, mental flexibility and problem solving. Learning helps us to make connections between seemingly unrelated processes – “to connect experiences and synthesise new things” (Steve Jobs). Proactive curiosity increases our mental flexibility and facilitates creative thinking. Engaging in activities that stimulate different areas of our brain helps us to come up with creative solutions to problems. Learning is a self-perpetuating process. New knowledge fuels our curiosity by creating awareness of ignorance – exposing gaps in our information, experience or skill set. It is human instinct to want to close those gaps, pushing us to learn and explore new things (Ian Leslie, “Curious: The desire to know and why your future depends on it”). Stay curious. Look beyond the obvious.
4. Improves our resilience and coping mechanisms. Learning makes us more resourceful and adaptable – helping us to reframe negative experiences and to spot opportunities within challenges. Acquiring new skills and experiences and successfully dealing with challenges add new dimensions to your self-definition – you become larger. Research shows that the more elements make up your identity, the less threatening it is when any one element is threatened (Gretchen Rubin, The Happiness Project).
5. Stretches us outside our comfort zone. For greatest benefit, learning needs to present a challenge of manageable difficulty – it needs to stretch us mentally and/or physically – without overextending into our “panic zone”. Operating in our comfort zone does not fully engage our capabilities, often leading to lack of motivation and boredom. Solving challenges and overcoming obstacles enables us to utilise all of our resources, extending our proficiencies and what we perceive to be possible for us to achieve. Thus, maximising our potential. How are you limiting yourself?
6. Connects us with others. Learning and new experiences can help us to connect with others, which is a basic human need. It provides us with a sense of purpose and achievement. Learn to build authentic relationships.
7. Creates Flow. Have you ever been so absorbed by a task that you lost all track of time and of yourself? How did that make you feel? Scientifically, this condition is known as being “autotelic” – or being in the “flow”, a name coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi over 30 years ago. Being in the flow triggers beneficial changes in our brain chemistry and respiratory patters, with feelings of complete absorption, fulfilment, focus and engagement. It means that we are utilising our skills to the utmost. There is a close connection with mindfulness and being in the moment, which brings it own additional benefits. How can you create more flow in your life?
8. Enhances life fulfilment. Learning, acquiring new skills, meeting new people, having new experiences leads to a “bigger life”.
“If you do what you always did, you will get what you always got” – Albert Einstein
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