Learning is one of the most beneficial activities you can undertake for positive mental wellbeing, bringing some advantages that may be unexpected, as well as the more obvious. For example, learning will clearly increase your skills, which can help in an existing role or in the search for a new job, and of course, this is why many undertake education as an adult. Less obvious but just as valuable, it also shifts your perspective, boosts resilience and mental wellbeing, and brings about changes in the brain. It even benefits your physical health.
Sam Fuller, Founder and Managing Director of The Wellbeing Project, explains that one of the less apparent benefits of learning is that it bolsters emotional resilience. This happens because, by learning, we are taking control and moving forward. This leads to a sense of feeling fulfilled and satisfied, which boosts confidence and self-belief.
‘We are not “finished articles”,’ says Sam. ‘Life is constantly moving – it’s fluid, not static – and learning opens up new horizons, giving us a fresh perspective. As we try new things, we learn more about ourselves.’
Resilience is also helped by the physical changes that occur in the brain when we learn. Learning new skills opens new neural pathways – we are literally opening our minds.
Mental and Physical Benefits
Learning is a great boon to long-term mental wellbeing as one British study shows. It found almost nine out of 10 individuals who were short-listed for adult learning awards reported positive emotional or mental health benefits. Evidence suggests that adult learning seems to have its most positive impact on self-esteem and self-efficacy when it 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.
Perhaps surprisingly, learning can also have a positive effect on physical health, with research showing that one year of formal education can add more than half a year to a person’s lifespan.
There are practical reasons for continuing to learn too. As we live and work longer, the changes to our working lives mean we need to keep up-to-date. As this article from Harvard Business Review explains, the benefits of learning include being better able to adapt to workplace changes – increasing technology, for example – especially as it impacts on the motivation to embrace them.
Given the additional years we will be working, many of us may outlive the career plans we set when we were younger. There is such a variety of different working arrangements now on offer that there are all sorts of opportunities which we couldn’t have envisaged in the past. Learning puts you in a place to be able to seize them, which circles back into resilience, especially given the connection between learning and a growth mindset.
As Prof. Carol Dweck sets out, people with a growth mindset believe that their basic qualities can be developed and their innate traits are the starting point. This viewpoint creates a mindset that embraces new challenges as an opportunity to learn and grow. The individual doesn’t fear failure because it is simply a chance to learn from the experience. For example, ‘clever’ is something you achieve and work towards rather than being innate.
This is in contrast to a fixed mindset in which people believe their basic qualities – such as intelligence or talents – are fixed traits so they tend to see feedback or learning in terms of how it evaluates their abilities. For example, you’re born ‘clever’ and tests prove or disprove that.
Sam explains that having a growth mindset is an important part of being resilient and having buoyant mental wellbeing, and learning helps achieve and maintain that outlook.
‘If we’re going to be able to take advantage of all the opportunities and possibilities that come our way, it makes sense to approach this with a growth mindset, rather than fixed – adapting and evolving to address the requirements of our working context,’ she says.
Of course, learning also helps us to do our existing jobs better. The sense of improvement and moving forward in a role inevitably brings about increased job satisfaction. Such is the power of learning for work that research has shown the rise in job satisfaction caused by job-related training is comparable to the increase gained from a 1% increase in hourly wages.
And research reveals that taking a part-time course for work over the past year has been estimated to give wellbeing benefits equivalent to £1,584 of income per year.
But learning need not be formal for the benefits to be experienced. Taking the time to read around a subject or having a curiosity about other departments or roles in your organisation is also a form of learning. Being open to new experiences and learning opportunities will help foster a growth mindset, boost resilience and wellbeing.
As Sam points out: ‘Our appetite to learn, and our curiosity to find out more about different things in life, is at the heart of long-term resilience. Just as when we travel to new countries and experience different cultures, so we can learn new things, join new interest groups and pick up new skills – the whole time we’re adding new facets to our life, new people and relationships, new connections, new knowledge.’