Month 5: Why learning makes us happy

Join our tribe of readers who are spreading joy by creating Happiness Clubs around the world, with the help of Psychologies and Action for Happiness. This month, the focus is on life long learning.

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In month five, our focus is learning new things. Why will this make us happier? “It’s actually a core need for psychological wellbeing. Learning can help us build confidence and a sense of self-efficacy. It can also be a way of connecting with others too,” says Vanessa King, Positive Psychology expert at Action for Happiness. “As human beings we have a natural desire to learn and progress (psychologists call it mastery).”

There is robust evidence* to suggest that adult learning seems to have its most positive impact on self-esteem and self-efficacy when the learning provided meets the needs of the learner and when the learner is at a stage in their life when they are ready and receptive to benefit from it. The studies suggest that positive effects of education on happiness and well-being result from a variety of processes, which probably include higher income, non-alienating work, household composition, health behaviours, use of health services, emotional resilience, social capabilities and, amongst older adults, better physical health.

Learning also fuels our creativity. Ideas can come from making connections between seemingly unrelated things. In this way learning something new in one area of our lives can trigger ideas in another. Hence curiosity and creative thinking often go hand in hand,” says King.

Which can also help with creating what psychologists call ‘flow’ or 'being in the zone', says King. When we are so absorbed in what we are doing we lose sense of time and of ourselves. “It's not passive (like when we lose a sense of time watching TV!) It's active,” she says. When we are in flow the level of challenge in the activity just exceeds our level of skill. We are also getting instant feedback from the activity on whether what we are trying is working so we can adjust what we are doing accordingly. As our skill increases so does the challenge. During flow we generally don't feel anything - so intense is our focus, but afterwards we might feel a sense of deep satisfaction and a boost from having increased our skill or achieved something. “In some ways it's a form of mindfulness - being totally focussed on the present, so we get the benefits of that too,” says King.

Do we have to go back to school?

We may to redefine what life-long learning means. “It's not just about academic studies and formal qualifications. A fun thing to try might be a skills swap with a friend or neighbour - do they have skills and knowledge you'd like to learn and vice versa. Could you ask a neighbour to be your gardening 'coach' to teach you the difference between a weed and a wall flower, for example?” says King. Think about what might work for you - how about taking up a new hobby (e.g. playing a musical instrument, learning a language, dancing, cake decorating, carpentry, gardening, computer coding.....). Or deepening and broadening your skills and knowledge in an area of interest. “I really like cooking so, being reasonably good at a number of European dishes, I'm really interested to learn the techniques and flavourings in Chinese regional food,” says King. “There are loads of free online courses too - in some ways it's never been easier to learn something new.”

Questions to discuss:

1.When did you last enjoy learning something new?

2.What frustrates you about learning something new?

3.When was the last time you felt a sense of ‘flow’ or ‘being in the zone’ – what did it feel like?

4.In the past, what impact has learning something new had on the rest of your life? (E.g. has it enabled you to get a better job, helped you cook more delicious meals, helped you make new friends?)

5.What can you commit to learn this month?

*Learning through life: Mental Capital and Wellbeing: Making the most of ourselves in the 21st Century. Government Office for Science.

Suzy Walker

Editor of Psychologies, Psychologies

I am proud to be editor of Psychologies, a magazine that champions, challenges and coaches us to think differently so we can solve our own problems and create a life that nourishes us. Author of Making The Big Leap and The Big Peace, Suzy believes that the secret to happiness is living life to the full right here, right now, committing to a few goals now and again and taking Oscar, the Psychologies dog for a walk round the field when it all gets a bit too much.