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Be epi-curious and have more fun along the way!
By Lydia Graham
As a child, my parents instilled a passion for learning I’ve carried with me all these years. Learning is not just a verb. It’s an attitude—one of curiosity about the world around us. I call it “epi-curious”—an epicure of curiosity about continually noticing and paying attention to what interests us and brings us joy. What that is for each person is unique.
Being around young children, it’s impossible not to notice their unbridled enthusiasm and sense of wonder for everything around them. Or better yet, have you met someone in their 80’s who still had that spark and twinkle in their eyes? I don’t know about you, but I want to be that person. Their secret may be that they are lifelong learners.
As we journey through adulthood, it’s easy to muddle through and become hammered by life’s bigger responsibilities and ever-demanding schedules. We lose ourselves in busy-ness. Many of us had this realization during the pandemic (one of its few silver linings).
Rediscovering a sense of wonder not only brings more fulfillment, it may help you live healthfully and maybe longer.
IT IS NEVER TOO LATE
The old saying, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” was meant for, well—dogs. It is not true in humans. Take the case of Doreetha Daniels. She received her associate degree in social sciences at the ripe age of 99. And in fact, a video on the internet about her inspired this article. Her goal was to earn a college degree before she turned 100. She met her goal in 2015 despite being faced with some physical difficulties from her advanced age. She earned her degree and lived to be 103. That is enough to put most of us to shame. In a university press release, she said she “wanted to finish her education to better herself.” Bettering oneself is exactly what lifelong learning does. We become more vital, interesting and healthier human beings. While some of us may be inspired to seek higher educational learning opportunities, here we will focus on personal learning.
THE PASSION OF THE EXPLORER
What motivates lifelong learners? Learning is about experiencing, acquiring, or discovering “new” knowledge, or applying existing knowledge in a new way. Researchers at the Deloitte Center for the Edge found life learners tended to exhibit, “the passion of the explorer.” This had three key elements: “a long-term commitment to achieving impact in a specific domain that excites them, an excitement to face unexpected hurdles, and when met with new challenges, they have an immediate desire to seek out and connect with others who can help them.” You don’t have to be Jacques Cousteau or Jane Goodall to be an explorer. Nor do you have to do it alone. It is something you can practice every day in the here and now.
THE BENEFITS OF LIFELONG LEARNING
According to Pew Research, as a lifelong learner I’ve got plenty of company these days. In fact, it seems we are becoming a country of lifelong learners: “73% of Americans consider themselves lifelong learners and 74% are what we call personal learners.” For personal learners, the study cited a number of benefits:
- Helped them feel more capable and well-rounded (84%)
- Opened new life perspectives (69%)
- Connected them to their local communities (58%)
- Encouraged them to get involved in volunteer opportunities (43%).
Engagement and a sense of connection to community have been established as vital to aging well and documented in numerous studies including those of the Blue Zones around the world. Over the years, some of my strongest friendships have come from learning situations that were social or place-based. It is easy to bond with new people when you are in a class, or a workshop focused on a shared interest. Such environments are usually non-threatening, as people are more open and relaxed. Additionally, these bonds tend to be more authentic.
And, you don’t have to enjoy these opportunities alone. Sharing these experiences with a friend or partner can deepen your relationship by having a new experience together.
There are many overall health and well-being benefits of learning throughout one’s life. A paper published in the Oxford Review of Education summarizes: “Participation in lifelong learning had effects upon a range of health outcomes; well‐being, protection and recovery from mental health difficulties, and the capacity to cope with potentially stress‐inducing circumstances including the onset and progression of chronic illness and disability. These effects were mediated by relatively immediate impacts of learning upon psychosocial qualities, self‐esteem, self‐efficacy, a sense of purpose and hope, competences, and social integration. Learning developed these psychosocial qualities through extending boundaries, a process which is quintessential to learning. However, not all educational experiences had positive effects upon health outcomes. Provision that generated positive health outcomes matched the interests, strengths and needs of the learner.”
While finding the things that match our interests and needs is important, sometimes it requires exploration. We tend to stick to what we do well, the known quantity. Maybe we do these things because we were told we were good at them by parents or teachers. Maybe it’s time to explore “The Road Not Taken” and see what happens.
There are plenty of examples in which someone wrote their first novel or achieved notoriety as a painter later in life. Think about the things you never tried but wanted to. Stretch a little. It is humbling to learn new things. Giving in to “beginners mind” requires courage. What it gives us in return is a youthful attitude toward life—a sense of openness and discovery.
LEARNING CHALLENGING TASKS IS ESPECIALLY GOOD FOR BRAIN HEALTH
By learning something new, our brains develop neuroplasticity, meaning we build new pathways neurologically, and maybe even new neurons, instead of staying in the same grooves. As defined by Joyce Shaffer, PhD., of the University of Washington Seattle, neuroplasticity “the capacity of brain cells to change in response to intrinsic and extrinsic factors, can have negative or positive influence at any age across the entire lifespan.” In other words, our brains are not static after childhood as once thought years ago. Practice makes perfect, because as we learn a new skill, these pathways become stronger.
We have all heard it is good to learn a new language, how to play a musical instrument, etc. Many opportunities exist beyond these overused examples. Anything that causes your brain to work in completely new ways is fair game.
Beginning a new hobby—if it’s a challenging one—can also do the trick, according to Dr. Denise Park, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas at Dallas. Her study randomly assigned 200 older people to different activities, “Rather than just comparing them to people who did nothing, we compared them to a group of people who had fun but weren’t mentally challenged as much. The results showed ‘only people who learned a new skill had significant gains.'” She continued, “We found quite an improvement in memory, and we found that when we tested our participants a year later, that (improvement) was maintained.”
“By strengthening the connections between parts of your brain,” says cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, “challenging activities strengthen entire networks in the brain” compared to brain games which “improve a limited aspect of short-term memory.”
The net take-a-way for all of us is that the benefits of learning challenging new things far outlasts the short-term act of learning the task.
NEW EXPERIENCES EXPAND OUR HORIZONS
Sometimes the best education is what we learn beyond the classroom. Recent years have seen an increasing focus on experience-based travel such as art tours, cooking classes, cultural immersions and even domestic or international volunteer projects. Lindblad Expeditions is one company that embraces the world as a classroom. Avid traveler Lesley Miller of Carmel sums up her experience: “My travels with Lindblad have given me the best education and experiences I have had over the past 40 plus years! These are expeditions, not cruises; the level of knowledge and experience the staff have and share is remarkable. The naturalists, historians, underwater specialists, etc. are a wealth of information.” Lesley has taken more than 30 expeditions culminating in quite an expansive and worldly education.
LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES ARE EVERYWHERE
Every major university has both online and offline continuing education classes. Sites like Coursera offer massive open online courses (MOOC’s) as well as the self-paced “Great Books” which features vast libraries catering to almost any interest. Churches, spiritual, meditation, culture/art/cooking and fitness centers are yet more great resources as are retreat destinations like Esalen and Miraval. There is also learning for “do it yourself” projects like gardening and crafts. The world is your oyster.
MAKE THE TIME
There is no shortage of opportunities; the key is not to be overwhelmed. Choose one. You are not committing to any of these for life. Have fun learning what inspires you. Make yourself a priority with the gift of time. Easier said than done for most of us, right?
Be an epi-curious explorer!
Lydia is a passionate advocate of healthy living. She has launched and positioned many health and wellness-related companies, products, technologies and organizations receiving more than 100 awards nationally and internationally.
Her focus in the health sector is specifically on life sciences, aging, and longevity. She is a partner and investor in several recognized national brands. She sits on the board of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging whose mission is to eliminate the threat of age-related disease for today’s and future generations.
It is the only independent research organization globally dedicated to extending the healthy years of life. Like the scientists at the Buck, Graham envisions it will be possible for people to enjoy life at 95 as much as at 25. To support Buck’s mission, please visit buckinstitute.org.