Plenty of research on happiness suggests it arises when we are generous, grateful and connected with our people. But another lesser-known pathway toward happiness is learning, growing and challenging ourselves in new ways.
This is related to the idea of thriving which—like happiness—has also seen tremendous research efforts, especially in relationship to elite athletes and child development. And these can be translated to our work and our lives. Thriving tends to occur when we experience success, but also when we are continually developing our skills and capabilities.
Why is learning so important to happiness and thriving? What is it about learning that makes it a key ingredient of joy and achievement? There are multiple studies which demonstrate the relationship between learning and thriving and these provide guidance about the actions which can increase happiness.
Learning Empowers You
Self-Determination. We all crave choice and want to feel we have some control over our lives and futures, and learning is frequently oriented toward self-determination. Some roles or companies may require certain learning, but many times learning is the result of pursuing your own interests and goals. Even in situations where certain curricula are mandatory, you can customize your own journey. The statistics class may be required, but beyond the modes and medians, if you’re interested in social dynamics, you can explore the patterns of behavior behind the numbers. The class on hazardous materials may be required, but in addition to the details on clean-up procedures, if you’re interested in design, you can be explore and be curious about the graphics which are most effective in communicating with urgency. No matter what the learning, it has the potential to open doors or provide options for growth that are uniquely interesting to you.
Self-Confidence. Learning can also be a source of self-confidence or likability. When you know more, you can contribute your perspectives and expertise and ask questions about others’ points of view that build on a strong foundation of your own knowledge. Your expanding capabilities can provide you with skills which help you contribute confidently to your current and future success. In addition, a study by Oxford University finds when people study at a university or college they tended to boost their agreeableness and likeability—both of which are a boon to forming positive relationships and getting ahead.
Resilience and Motivation. Learning can also build resilience, because—by definition—learning requires you to realize you don’t already know it all and encourages you to try something new and fill in gaps of information. The 85% rule, validated by research at the University of Arizona, says if you never fail, you won’t be challenged to continue and if you fail too frequently, you will be demotivated. The sweet spot for motivation and learning is an 85% success and 15% failure rate. Fail 15% of the time and you will keep coming back for more. In addition, fascinating research at the University of California Davis also finds curiosity helps your brain remain more open to additional learning and this openness helps you remember new information and cement memories.
Broadened Perspective. When you learn new things, you also expand your horizons and greater perspective is linked to experiences of happiness and joy. Whether you’re studying history, Spanish or guitar, you’ll get a new view and extend your knowledge of the world. Depression is typically marked by a myopic perspective where you feel limited or trapped within your circumstances. But a broader view—of others, of the world, of circumstances and of possibilities—is correlated with greater happiness.
Health and Happiness. Overall, the benefits of developing yourself are broad. A study between Oxford University and the Workers Educational Association of England and Scotland finds when people participate in classes outside of work, they improve their mental and physical health and report greater satisfaction with their lives. And according to a study by San Francisco State University, those who engage in formal education experience greater happiness and life satisfaction overall.
Making It Real: You can take advantage of the research on how learning expands your skills, perspective and wellbeing by seeking new learning regularly. Whether it’s formal learning through classes, or informal learning through asking questions and reading, seek new learning all the time. Also consider learning that is integrated into your day. You may not have time to read a book on your passion, but you can ask questions of people around you or you can do a quick internet search for the answer to a question that comes up in a conversation. You can always be on the lookout for information about whatever is going on in your life at the moment.
Learning Advances Your Career
Career Benefits. The pandemic has caused people to rethink their careers and a majority of people have placed a higher priority on their career success since the pandemic. Learning can be a pathway to something new and to reinventing your future. This optimistic future-viewpoint is a source of happiness. In addition, greater skills and development of talents tend to pay off in promotions and pay. Leaders appreciate employees who are continuously learning and growing. In a study by the Lumina Foundation, employees who took advantage of educational reimbursement programs saw a 43% increase in wages.
Decision Making. Learning can help you make better decisions, contributing to career success. A study by Cornell University finds when people participate in formal educational programs, they tend to make better decisions and express greater rationality, especially concerning economic assessments. Essentially, people made better choices which have positive financial impacts, and this held true even four years after classes.
Making It Real: Be intentional about your career, and consider what you love to do, seeking roles which best align with your preferences. Tap into learning programs, certifications or training opportunities which provide you with the skills to pursue your passions with more vigor or which deepen your contributions by applying new and existing talents.
Your Network. Learning is one of the most powerful ways to build your network. When you sit together with others in educational settings—whether virtual or physical—you build relationships and gain meaningful contacts. Working on a tough, late-night project with your classmate can create lasting bonds. Your network is also helpful for tapping into new opportunities and furthering your learning.
Family Achievement. Learning also benefits family relationships. According to a study by the University of Sussex, children have an achievement advantage when their parents are more educated. In addition, the University of Illinois demonstrates more education tends to results in longer lifespans and greater economic achievement.
Making it Real: Use learning venues to connect with others. Rather than just getting through a class as quickly as possible, leverage the time to meet people and develop relationships. Meaningful connections are important to both introverts and extroverts, and they are links to happier, more fulfilling experiences.
Learning contributes to happiness for people and communities, and it also has positive effects for countries. Researchers at Umea University studied 15,000 people across 25 countries every two years since 2002 and finds when countries support greater educational attainment, their citizens are happier and healthier.
Learning offers tremendous benefits in terms of today’s capabilities, but also in terms of tomorrow’s achievements—not the least of which are happiness and fulfillment in work and life. Be curious, seek expanded knowledge and never stop learning.