The Benefits of Learning New Skills

25 November 2021

Stretching your mind is important at any age, but cognitive health is especially vital as we get older, and learning new skills can bring a multitude of benefits.

There’s a commonly-held attitude among people of a certain age that learning new skills isn’t valuable or desirable. Even people in their forties might find themselves dismissing new fads or technologies on the basis that they’ve lived without them up until now.

The truth is that new skills can be beneficial at any age, but especially as we get older. It’s well-known that the brain loses nerve cells over time, while remaining ones may begin to relay messages more slowly than they used to. However, our brains also compensate for this by making new connections between remaining nerve cells, often in response to new knowledge being learned or physical skills developing. This vital age-defying procedure can be aided immeasurably by stretching and challenging ourselves, and there are few better ways to do this than by taking up a new hobby or pastime.

A new lease of life

As we get older, it’s easy to settle into established habits and not push ourselves beyond these comfortable routines. Yet learning something new is exciting and rewarding, with the power to revitalise us. It often provides enough motivation to get away from the TV or social media, whether we’re restoring antiques in a shed or learning computing skills like graphic design. Indeed, given modern-day reliance on the internet, greater computing knowledge is invaluable for people who don’t already know their HTTP from their HTML.

Physical skills can be the hardest to learn, as anyone who’s ever attempted to master the guitar will ruefully testify. However, they’re also the most holistic. The benefits of physical activities like Nordic walking are both mental and physical, boosting stamina and dexterity at a time when both might otherwise be on the wane.

The social network

Forget making ‘friends’ on Facebook – no online experience compares to meeting new people. While friendships are easily forged in youth, they’re harder to cultivate as we become more set in our ways. A new skill may push us out of the home and into social situations, from night school to local community groups. As well as boosting self-confidence, learning alongside other people is a bonding experience capable of underpinning new relationships.

On a physiological level, learning a particular skill thickens the brain’s prefrontal cortex, boosting intelligence while keeping existing neural pathways active. It’s now known that neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to grow and adapt) is maintained throughout our lives, rather than ending in adolescence as was previously believed. The phrase ‘you’re never too old to learn’ suddenly has new resonance.

Banishing boredom

Many people go through life thinking how nice it’d be to do a particular thing, while making excuses not to do it. Lockdown exacerbated our tendency to play it safe, and boredom has been a recurrent result, with attendant mental health consequences including lethargy and depression.

The opposite is also true. Throwing yourself into a new activity or skill is absorbing, time-consuming and revitalising. It adds meaning to a day that might otherwise be lacking in focus, and improves your overall sense of wellbeing. You don’t even need to master a new skill, since practising it may unlock all the benefits it can offer. It’s particularly beneficial if the skill you’re learning can be built upon – learning a language in advance of a foreign holiday, for instance.

Improving daily life

Finalists on shows like MasterChef often recount how the competition has changed their life, and this is more than just hyperbole or in-the-moment romanticism. Learning a new skill may directly increase your self-confidence and happiness. Sharing expertise with others is a philanthropic activity proven to release endorphins, while a newly-acquired skill could also improve your quality of life tangentially. Learning to cook might result in you eating more healthily (with its own attendant benefits), growing your own veg or throwing dinner parties for the first time.

You can also choose activities which suit your lifestyle or learning style. Remote learning suits housebound people whereas local classes help gregarious individuals to meet other people. Similarly, open-ended learning is less pressured than time-limited courses such as Open University degrees.