tephen Covey was a management thinker and author of the guide book “The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People”. The book was and still is a best seller. One of his seven habits was named “Sharpening the Saw” and what he meant by this was keeping your intellect sharp and worthy. His advice was to take exercise, rest, live moderately but above all else read and learn. He felt that renewing yourself was an essential part of living a successful life and there is a developing body of research evidence which backs up his claim.
In the USA, a study was done of older adults who had taken up university programmes (not full degrees), the PUMA programme (University programme for mature adults), and a control group who did not have any learning experiences during the same period. Whilst there was no difference in their cognitive abilities as the start of the study, those participating in the PUMA programme had longer term better health and were less likely to suffer from depression too.
It doesn’t matter what you learn either. It can be academic such as a formal study or online course; a skill such as languages, dance or singing; or even spiritual such as Yoga or t’ai chi. It can be a solo endeavour or done in a group. It can be a physical challenge or perhaps picking up something you enjoyed as a child or young person, for example, playing an instrument.
So here are some other important reasons why you should step outside your comfort zone and learn something new.
1. Cognitive Benefits:
Cognitive psychology is that area of human behaviour and thinking which includes memory, attention, problem solving and decision making. These are the areas where we may notice deficits as we age. Using our cognitive abilities keeps them “sharp” and may help us keep our edge, which is useful in work and later in life when we need it most. David Attenborough the inspiring naturalist keeps learning new things, and experiencing new ideas such as his passionate advocacy against global warming. At 90 he is still intellectually as sharp as he was at 50 and probably wiser too. Things to learn which may have cognitive benefits include Chess; cryptic crosswords; languages and activities which involve problem solving.
2. Physical benefits:
Keeping the body supple, toning muscles, and improving circulation would be the main benefits of learning a physical skill or practice. Whilst some activities are more physical, they still have other benefits since maintaining physical fitness can prevent strokes and TIAs (transient ischaemic attacks) which result in brain damage. Learning to play golf; practise yoga; belly dancing and swimming all could improve your physical condition and even your mental wellbeing.
3. Economic Success:
There is no doubt that people who commit to lifelong learning tend to achieve better economic success. While such learning can be job related, any type of learning can be beneficial. A short course in improving IT skills, book keeping, are obvious candidates here, but even a hobby can turn into useful extra income, for example: learning how to upholster or restore furniture; making jewellery; clothes or even cake decorating can bring their own economic benefits as well as a sense of satisfaction.
4. Social benefits:
We live in a long day culture with many of us working more hours than we get paid for, we tend to neglect our social and mental health. Committing to learning something with other people can improve your social life and a sense of balance. The wisest people seem to work to live rather than live to work. Joining an evening class or adult education can be good socially as well as intellectually. Singing in a choir is a challenging yet social activity. Adult education classes too, typically include skills such as: learning languages; learning British Sign Language; and topics as diverse as Egyptology and even forensic anthropology.
5. Managing in a rapidly changing world:
We live in a world where the top ten jobs of 2016 did not exist ten years ago, where the amount of information available to us today on an average computer would have filled a library or a university 150 years ago. And the signature of our age is that nothing stays the same. Our parents’ generation had jobs for life and probably stayed in the same career for life. We are likely to have had 20 or more jobs during our career. In this context we have to keep on learning so developing a learning mentality enables us to keep flexible about what we need to know. In addition, in a world which is dangerous and shrinking (culturally and in terms of trade) we need to keep open minds and look for the next wave. Online courses are best equipped to help us keep abreast of such developments and keep ahead of the curve.
6. Mental Health benefits:
Research tells us that it isn’t the type of learning that we do but the fact that we do it which has benefits in preventing depression, improving self-esteem and confidence so if you don’t want to go into a formal education setting, the thought of donning yoga pants leaves you cold and your attempts to ice a cake look more like a glacier than Nadia’s, then perhaps volunteering is for you. The National Trust, preserved steam railways, bell ringers and local hospices would not survive if it were not for the armies of volunteers who commit time and their skills to learning what needs to be done. For example, it takes over a year to train to be a guard on a preserved steam railway since the safety standards are as high as on a mainline passenger service. Now there’s a lot to learn…