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Five ways to wellbeing, part 4: Keep learning

Written by Koen Smets (5 Dec 2014)

Learning never exhausts the mind. — Leonardo da Vinci

Sometimes it feels as if every day is pretty much the same: in the evening we end up exactly where we left off in the morning, as if there has been no meaningful progress at all. On other days, in contrast, things may feel very differently. What makes this difference?

Some people get a sense of achievement from really ambitious stuff – they learn how to dance the tango, how to make a cheese soufflé so that it doesn’t collapse, how to play the blues harmonica, or how to build their own furniture. But it’s not necessary to be that skilled, or ambitious. Small things may be equally potent. Even such minor achievements as discovering new vistas on a walk in a part of town I don't know that well, completing a Sudoku puzzle in the paper, or fixing the light on the landing, leave me with a sense that I possess more than I did before. I took the decision to do these things, and I made the effort that led to the result.

It's sometimes hard to take the initiative, though, when you're busy with mundane tasks, or when your thoughts are beginning to get hold of your attention because there isn't much else to engage with. A friend of mine has discovered an interesting way of getting out of that kind of rut. He has a busy job and he used to find it hard to set his brain on things outside work. He also has an elderly mother who lives on her own several hundred miles away, most of whose friends have passed away, and who was rattling around in her home all day, feeling increasingly lonely and without purpose, and a bit low.

During a phone call with her, he suddenly came up with the idea of setting his mum a couple of challenges every week. She quite liked the idea, but only on the condition that she could set him challenges as well. He was a bit taken aback, but agreed anyway. Later that evening, he sent her an email:

"Explain to me how a ballpoint pen works, and how Parma ham is made."

Her answer came promptly:

"Could you tell me why a golf ball has dimples, and what the difference is between the gross national product and the gross domestic product and why it matters?"

The next morning, as usual, he got absorbed in work and totally forgot about it, but a couple of days a mail from his mother dropped into his inbox. She had the answers, but she wasn't going to tell him until he was ready to answer her questions. This left him with little choice, so he set about finding out about golf balls and the GDP. It took him a while, but he thought it was strangely enjoyable to learn about these two things in which, until then, he’d had little interest. He thought of two new challenges, and mailed these on with what he had discovered. Soon after two new questions from his mother arrived - where on earth did she get these? - "Why do the buttons on my phone make these weird sounds? What is or are Ondes Martenot?"

The rest, as they say, is history. My friend and his mother are still sending each other challenges, and in the process helping each other to keep on learning, and deriving satisfaction, not just from learning new stuff, but from teaching new stuff to someone else. Sometimes the intrinsic motivation that learning can bring is insufficient to conquer the daily humdrum, and then adding the motivation that answering someone else’s questions can bring may tip the balance. And of course here too the commitment to play the game means that you don’t want to let your learning partner down by not replying... So if you don’t find it easy to keep learning, you may want to try learning with a friend.

If you're in need of a question to start you off, how about this: what is the longest word in Finnish? Good luck!