Why learning makes you happy

25 May|Robert Twigger

One step at a time... learn for fun, not to be an expert, says Twigger

Robert Twigger, author of a new book on learning basic skills, says we should start small

Why wait around for someone to teach you something when you can teach yourself? Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of short fully immersive courses with a highly specific goal but increasingly I think of any course longer than a year as a form of brainwashing… kids avert your eyes now.

Yes, I had the benefits of a university education though I did manage to do almost no work there and only attended two lectures in three years.

Enough shallow boasting – my beef is with a culture that prates on about learning and education until we tune it right out and at the same time is astonishingly bad at the nitty gritty of learning something new. The basic model in Britain is: you’re either talented or not. If not talented – forget it. If talented, prepare to be love bombed by coaches etc who will nurture you to greatness with an appropriate sized ego in tow. In Japan it is rather different and studying something I was fairly untalented at – martial arts- to back belt level and beyond – taught me that with the right approach you can teach anyone almost anything.

I learnt that a micromastery was the key to having fun and enjoying learning. Instead of burdening yourself with a whole field, you start with something small, self-contained, with a show-off value but also in microcosm it has something of the entire field contained within itself. I asked a cabinet maker what a micromastery might be and he immediately told me, “Try making a perfect cube of wood”. Everything you need to know about woodwork you’ll learn on this simple self-set task. For cooking, chefs say make an omelette. For realistic sculpture – try modelling skulls from plasticine you carry around in your pocket. Over the years I spoke to experts in many fields and garnered all kinds of micromasteries that were quick and easy to learn- surfing standing up, doing a tango walk, making a perfect Daiqiri cocktail, baking artisan bread, brewing a delicious IPA craft beer, drawing a line sketch, learning to read Japanese script in three hours, laying a brick wall…

 But that was only the half of it. Learning new stuff just for the sake of it is pretty pointless unless it also makes you happy. Does it? Happiness is a slippery one – the more you aim at the more it slips from your greedy grasp. But moving away from it doesn’t help either. Instead you need to trust that happiness is the normal default human setting as long as you are pursuing a life you find meaningful. Meaning doesn’t have to be big and life-changing but it does have to be there – and it is found in caring for others, facing up to the troubles life throws at us and growing as a human, and in making and creating things.

Teaching yourself something new is part of the never ending trajectory of human growth that we are all on, like it or not. The new Nobel prize winning author Bob Dylan got it right: “If you’re not busy being born you’re busy dying”. Author Tahir Shah put it another way: “Life without steep learning curves is no life at all”. Humans are change-oriented beings and we need to find new interests all the time.

This was my biggest discovery doing my Micromastery project- I had actually ceased to give myself permission to be interested in everything. I was actually saying to myself “nope, you haven’t got time for that”. Yet our whole heritage as former hunter-gatherers screams at us – be interested in everything, that’s where the food, life, everything is at. Our rather messed up modern world wants us to be cogs in the giant machines of commerce and technopoly- but we do so at risk to our own mental health. Dr Michael Merzenich, one of the world’s leading researchers into stroke recovery, actively encourages everyone to use their learning capabilities all the time. And he follows his own advice – not using a GPS, walking different routes home, travelling to learn more about other countries – he has found you have to do far more than the crossword to keep your brain cells alive and growing.

It’s harder to be happy if you’re suffering cognitive decay. There is a whopping four fold increase in dementia predicted in the next twenty years. Luckily countless pieces of evidence point to the fact that using the brain to learn actually does stave it off. People with two languages are less likely to get dementia than those with only one. It’s all about learning and when you can make it fun and interesting – why on earth not try?

Micromastery – learn small, learn fast and find the hidden path of happiness, by Robert Twigger. Published by Penguin £12.99 but to be found cheaper in many places!