Jason Powers

Jason Powers M.D.

Beyond Abstinence

Doing These Two Things Will Boost Your Well-Being

Here are two sure-fire ways to take control of your own well-being.

Posted Sep 18, 2015

Photo purchased from iStockphoto, used with permission.
Source: Photo purchased from iStockphoto, used with permission.

New research has uncovered a surefire way to take control of your own well-being. Actually, make that two sure-fire ways.

Out of 24 character strengths possessed in varying degrees by each of us, two of them hold up on their own as predictors of well-being, according to a study by psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman.

The first, gratitude, is a no-brainer. People who are thankful for the goodness in their lives, who appreciate the little things, are happier and better prepared to take on life’s challenges. They are also physically healthier and have better relationships. As Cicero said, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.”

It’s the next one that may catch you off guard. The study found that a “love of learning” was the second trait that could independently predict well-being. Those possessing this signature strength are motivated to acquire new skills or knowledge. They are most fulfilled being anywhere — enrolled in school, strolling through a museum — that presents an opportunity to learn. To them, the act of learning is its own intrinsic reward. (If you don’t know your signature strengths, you can take the Values in Action survey.)

Why You Should Never Stop Learning

The benefits of this strength extend far beyond our formal school years. Learning affects our well-being throughout life. It keeps the mind and memory sharp, exposes us to new ideas, makes us feel more confident and helps us lead fuller, more well-rounded lives. It is all about achieving the mental state of “flow,” where we become so absorbed in what we’re doing that time seems to stop and we lose our sense of self. Getting there requires us to be actively involved in an engaging endeavor.

From a 20-something taking up rock climbing to an octogenarian discovering how to make new friends and find old ones on Facebook, learning something new is one of the best ways for us to reach a flow state and feel our best.

The Brain Craves Novelty

By exploring new skills or mastering new hobbies, you’re giving the brain something it craves — novelty. Our brains are wired to seek out the unknown. Think about it from an evolutionary perspective. A love of learning has likely saved us from extinction many times over. Science writer Winifred Gallagher, author of New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change, argues that our appetite for novelty is the quintessential human survival skill.

“Nature ensures that all living creatures react to novelty and change,” Gallagher says. “A swerving car on the highway, a jump in your bad cholesterol or a drop in a stock’s value rivets your attention and jangles your nerves, which prime you to protect yourself from harm.”

What’s more, exposing your brain to something new improves memory and can help you study more effectively. University College London researchers found that people performed better on memory tests when new information was interspersed with the familiar.

Better Brain Health

So give your brain what it wants. Whether you’re looking to change or further a career, yearning to reinvent yourself, or seeking intellectual enrichment by picking up a new skill, opportunities abound to be a lifelong learner. For those who don’t wish to go back to school, there are lectures, audiobooks, educational travel and countless free resources available online. 

Seniors in particular can benefit from continuing their educationResearch in the United Kingdom has shown that as we age, intellectual stimulation can lead to a reduced use of medication and an increased sense of well-being, and can even delay the onset of dementia.

Proof that you’re never too old to learn is evident in the heartwarming 2014 Cyber-Seniors documentary, which chronicles a group of senior citizens as they learn to use the Internet with the help of teenage mentors. In this clip, 82-year-old Kerstin Wolgers uses the Web for the first time. “Lots going on here … it’s really exciting, if you asked me,” she says. Another woman becomes enthralled with cooking tutorials: “All these things that I never even dreamed about.”

Adult Brains Can Grow

New developments in neuroscience have shown that learning something new can actually grow the brain, putting to rest the traditional belief that the adult brain is unable to change in response to novel experiences. Learning to juggle, for example, has been proven to boost both grey and white matter — for good. (And it's a good party trick.) Your brain forms new connections every time you learn something new.

Kaufman’s research also backed up one of the key concepts of positive psychology: that practicing your character strengths is the path to well-being. So as the kids return to the classroom this month, you should, too. It can be a traditional brick-and-mortar facility, a virtual study hall, an outdoor theater for Shakespeare 101 or a pool for underwater basket-weaving. Just pick one new thing you want to learn. Don’t let the kids have all the fun.

You don’t have to go any further than your laptop. Here are some of the best online sites to feed your hunger for learning:

edX: Harvard and MIT have partnered to create free, interactive, online courses.

Memrise: Users can learn new languages with the help of animations and mnemonics.

Coursera: Free courses from the world’s top universities.

Khan Academy: “Learn almost anything—for free.” Khan Academy is one of the world’s most-used online educational resources.

OpenStudy: OpenStudy is a social learning network that enables users to connect with others studying the same subjects.

Code Academy: Learn to code interactively, for free.

One Month: Learn to code and build Web applications in one month.

Lynda.com: Learn technology, creative and business skills.

Moz: Improve your website’s visibility with guides to search engine optimization, social media and link building.

Chesscademy: Learn how to play chess for free.

CreativeLive: Watch live workshops for free and interact with instructors in real time.

Guides.co: Search the largest collection of learning guides.

Yousician: Your personal music teacher for the digital age.

TED: Short, powerful talks that cover almost all topics — from science to business to global issues — in more than 100 languages.

Of course, for those who feel they spend too much of their lives staring at a screen, there is always the option of going old school. Try cracking a book.

Jason Powers, MD, is chief medical officer at Promises Austin drug rehab center and The Right Step network of substance abuse treatment programs in Texas. He writes a blog on addiction and is the pioneer of Positive Recovery, an approach to addiction treatment that helps people discover meaning and purpose in their lives.