Whether it's acquiring a new skill or language, joining a new group and meeting new people, or finding ways to continue using existing skills, successful ageing and longevity are built upon patterns of lifelong learning.
“It’s actually a core need for psychological wellbeing. Learning can help us build confidence and a sense of self-efficacy. It can 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.”
In terms of happiness, a close companion of learning is the degree of engagement people have with tasks that provide them knowledge and fulfilment. People who are intensely absorbed in a task can lose track of time and place. Though the task may be tiring it releases endorphins that make the participants feel energised and happy. This condition is known as "flow," a name coined 30 years ago by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The ego disappears as you lose yourself in the rhythm of learning, creating and doing. To inspire flow, the level of challenge in an activity should just exceed our level of skill.*
Csikszentmihalyi’s research over the years has shown that people totally engaged in pursuits can trigger healthful changes in their brain chemistry and breathing patterns. People who experience flow on a regular basis are generally happier than those who don’t. Could this be why the contestants on Strictly Come Dancing are generally ecstatic about their experience? They are on a learning curve, a roller-coaster dopamine-fuelled ride, consistently pushing themselves physically and mentally, by learning new steps and routines, which culminates in highly stimulating and rewarding periods of flow.
Flow is easily associated with creativity, and the image of a musician or artist lost in near-rapturous pursuit of their craft. Csikszentmihalyi says that in some respects, society has come to value and support the arts and sporting pursuits precisely because of their flow benefits. It's why we like to do them in the first place. The real challenge, he says, is to take something that you have to do that has purpose and meaning and figure out how to induce a state of flow while doing it.
While the link between stimulating mental exercise and disease prevention has not been definitively established, most scientists believe there is a beneficial relationship between lifelong learning and staying socially active with mental well-being and happiness later in life.
The benefits of learning and engagement are particularly important in promoting healthy aging. Your mind is really like a muscle, and exercising it is a key to lifelong mental health, says Lisa Berkman, professor of public policy and epidemiology at Harvard University. There has been a surge in attention to mental exercise as a way of preventing Alzheimer's disease, for example. Use it or lose it really does seem to be the key.
"As we get older, it is more important to find things to do that light up our lives," Berkman says. Our minds are central to this effort, and thrive when we are finding new things for them to do.
As we age, lifelong learning is as crucial for mental dexterity as it is for emotional health. Learning provides us with new ways to light up our neural pathways, and it is conquering the challenge, whether it be learning a language or mastering the Salsa, that gives us a sense of fulfilment and achievement that can lead to a longer, healthier and happier life.
“Lifelong learning is not just about academic studies and formal qualifications,” Vanessa King says. “A fun thing to try might be a skills swap with a friend or neighbour – do they have knowledge you’d like to learn and vice versa? Could you ask someone to be your gardening coach to teach you the difference between a weed and a wallflower?”
“Think about what might work for you. There are loads of free online courses,” King adds. “It’s never been easier to learn something new.”