Learn Something New Every Day: Here's How

Taking a class is one way to learn new things. If you are a social person, that might be key to your enjoying it. (Photo: Rawpixel/Shutterstock)

If your life feels like the movie "Groundhog Day" — every day just a repeat of the last — then there's a simple solution.

Change things up by learning something new.

And by "something" I mean almost anything. It could be what you might think of when you imagine "adult education" — picking up a foreign language, playing an instrument or baking fruit pies. But it could also be something totally random, like telling jokes or tree-climbing. It just has to be something you don't already know how to do.

Learning new things is a surefire way to boost your happiness quotient. When you learn, you rediscover how big the world is, and how much possibility is out there for you. That can't help but remind you of childhood, when you likely had this feeling most of the time.

Learning also builds confidence the old-fashioned way — through trial and error. You're bound to get better at whatever you try over time, and that mastery should help you feel good.

"Learning also fuels our creativity," Vanessa King, positive psychology expert, told Psychologies magazine. "Ideas can come from making connections between seemingly unrelated things. Learning something new in one area of our lives can trigger ideas in another. Curiosity and creative thinking go hand-in-hand."

Depending on what you choose to learn, your learning journey is likely to connect you to others — and importantly, to others who are interested in similar topics.

Learning to fit your life

So what should you study? Narrowing it down can be daunting, but keep in mind that it should be something you want to take time to do. You know that feeling when your favorite TV show is on, or sports team is going to be playing? Your excitement about learning whatever it is you choose should feel like that.

Forget worrying about specific subjects at first. Think about what kind of learning you want to do. Do you like learning in a group setting with other people? Do you prefer to learn alone from books, videos or lectures? Or do you like one-on-one learning with a teacher so you can ask lots of questions?

Then, think about format. Do you enjoy reading or do you prefer listening? Or do you like learning by doing? Do you want to be physically active while you learn, or relaxed? Would you like to be outdoors or inside? How much time do you want to spend and how can it work with your schedule?

Answer these questions first, and then think about what topics fit.

For example, my friend Jess likes learning with a group of other people, and she wants to do something physically active outdoors. She doesn't have much time and needs to schedule around her job and young kids' schedules. She'd rather learn while doing than read. Knowing that, a class with a specific meeting time would be best for her — it gets her out of the house at the same time each week, so she can organize around a fixed event. Now she can think about what fits in those categories. Maybe a stand-up paddleboarding class could be a good fit in the summer, or cross-country skiing in the winter.

I, however, prefer one-on-one instruction and learning from books, and I'd like to do something outside that involves my hands. As a journalist, I have a flexible employment with a lot of last-minute changes as I work several jobs, so I need something I can fit into my schedule when I have time. That could be three hours one week when I'm between assignments, and just one the next when I'm on deadline. Something that would fit that category (that I definitely want to learn) is wild plant foraging. I would definitely like to find an expert I can go on a hike with one weekend day, who can give me a lesson. Then I'd feel confident going on a hike with a book or two to help me with plant identification, and I'd like to keep a journal of what I find. Maybe, after I feel like I have a handle on the basics, I could meet with the expert again.

My needs and preferred style of learning are going to go a long way towards helping me find a subject that I'm interested in and will also work with the rest of my life, and are very different than my friend's interests and lifestyle.

How to make it happen

Learning something new is a commitment, as the video from Google's Matt Cutts explains. He takes the 30-day challenge approach. For you, it might be easier to stick to that commitment if you join a class or schedule time with an instructor. But that's not the only way to succeed.

You could also set a specific goal for yourself: "I will go to Italy when I can ask for and understand street directions and order my dinner in Italian."

Or you can make your learning situational. If you love spending time at the beach, you can bring books about the ocean with you, and limit yourself to learning about the ocean when you are next to it. You might practice dancing salsa via instructional videos at home for a month until the next salsa open dance night near you.

There are also plenty of online tools, some of which gameify the learning experience, which is another way into making learning part of your life. You can also replace one habit you'd like to minimize with a learning-based one. Instead of clicking on Facebook, go to the Wikipedia homepage and read the daily article, for example.

Share what you know

Ask your friends: "What are you good at?" You will be surprised to find that one of your friends may have been on the swim team in high school and can show you how to do the backstroke, or another friend makes his own barbecue sauces and can teach you. You can friends to share what they know — but be sure to pay them back in kind. That could be literally paying them cash for their time, cooking them dinner, babysitting their kids or finding out what they need that you can provide.

Maybe you can even organize a skills swap with a friend of friends. "Does [your friend or neighbor] have knowledge you’d like to learn and vice versa? Could you ask someone to be your gardening coach to teach you the difference between a weed and a wallflower?" suggests King. This is a great idea for a super-low-cost way to learn and also get to know people in your community.

You could even organize a local group and perhaps multiple people might share what they know at a skills night. Bring food, drinks and a couple informal teachers together, and you've got a class. I've taken part in one of these where three people were teaching fabric skills — embroidery, indigo dyeing, and basic clothing repair. About 20 people showed up to learn and everyone walked away with newfound knowledge. You could organize something similar on almost any subject.

There are many ways to learn, and it can be a feel-good way to spend time that's active, not passive. Teaching is also rewarding, so while you are thinking about learning, also consider what you might be able to share with others; perhaps you can do both and bring the gift of learning to someone else as well.