Eight years ago, I was facing the seemingly impossible task of rebuilding my life. I really didn’t know where to start, but I decided to throw my curiosity wide open and read about anything and everything that struck my fancy. The idea was just to throw everything against the wall and see what, if anything, stuck. That Summer, I read about the ‘new atheism’, evolution, jazz, music theory, Weimar Germany, and the American Civil War. While none of those particular areas of study has lasted, this process gave me a new sense of life and vitality: I’d been through the wringer, but there was life on the other side. I found myself with a renewed sense of hope and energy, and a sense of wonder I feared had been lost.
The main reason why this tactic was so effective for me is that I was using one of my strongest VIA character strengths, Love of Learning. Eventually this process led me to learn about Buddhism, which gave me the psychological tools I needed to get back on my cognitive feet and eventually allowed me to re-approach my Christian faith. When I found myself similarly feeling ‘stuck’ four years later — my big, bold risk of moving across the country having resulted only in recreating the unsatisfying life I had left behind — I was again able to leverage my love of learning to break out of the depressive rut I was in. It was then that I started to explore the worlds of coaching, positive psychology, and spiritual theology. And this has been the greatest boon for my happiness and wellbeing I’ve ever experienced.
According to the VIA Institute, “If Love of Learning is your top strength, you love learning new things, whether in a class or on your own.” They continue, “You have always loved school, reading, and museums — anywhere and everywhere there is an opportunity to learn. Love of learning describes the way in which a person engages new information and skills. Love of learning is a strength that teachers would like to see in their students, parents want to encourage in their children, therapists support in their clients, and employers try to foster in their employees.” Niemietz and McGrath add that those high in the strength of love of learning “aren’t satisfied with a shallow understanding of things” and “feel genuinely excited about new information” (The Power of Character Strengths, 72).
This may sound awfully close to the trait of curiosity that we explored a few months ago. And indeed they’re closely connected. But they can still be differentiated. As Niemietz and McGrath note, “While curiosity is the motivating force that leads you to seek out new information, love of learning refers to the desire to hold on to and deepen that information” (The Power of Character Strengths, 71). While a curious person may tend towards dilettantism, a person high in love of learning will tend more towards mastery. One may in fact, love learning without being curious, and thereby focus solely on mastering one narrow area of study.
As I’ve alluded to already, love of learning has many benefits for our wellbeing. These include: positive affect, gratitude, joy, pride, and hope, and increased competency and efficacy. Perhaps most importantly, by helping people view their experiences as learning opportunities, it helps to create the sense of “Beginner’s mind” that enables people to persist through challenging times. A love of learning can also be harnessed to help out in areas of life where we find ourselves lacking: If we’re having trouble in relationships, we can learn about that; if we’re feeling confused about our finances, we can learn about how the economy works, and so on. Finally, a love of learning has been associated with healthy cognitive aging.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, love of learning has been — not surprisingly — particularly valued in terms of religious instruction. Psalm 1 tells us “Happy are those who[se]…delight is in the law of the LORD,and on his law they meditate day and night.” Psalm 119, the longest of the psalms by far, is entirely dedicated to the wonders of learning God’s Law (referring to the whole Torah, narratives as much as laws). Similarly the book of Proverbs was written “for learning about wisdom and instruction, for understanding words of insight, for gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity” (Prov. 1.2-3). Judaism has carried on this legacy and has long been known for its rigorous practices of education and learning. In its first centuries, Christianity was similarly known for the value it placed on learning — in many parts of the Church, it became customary for there to be a three-year period of instruction (catechesis) before baptism. While these practices were not continued, learning continued to flourish in monastic communities throughout the Middle Ages and Early Modern period.
As we’ve seen, love of learning is a valuable character trait for human wellbeing. In its absence, there is simple ignorance and apathy. At worst, this can become what a friend of mine calls “belligerent ignorance,” a kind of aggressive pride at one’s ignorance and anti-intellectual attacks on knowledge and those who have it. Love of learning has its shadows of excess as well. Without curiosity, it can lead to narrow and segmented learning; and when unchecked by grace and gentleness, it can become know-it-all-ism, which can harm relationships.
If we find ourselves running low on love of learning, how might we increase it? Here are some practices for cultivating this important trait:
- Deliberately learn a new word, including meaning and usage, every day
- Read a non-fiction book or listen to podcasts on a topic you find engaging
- In every circumstance, ask yourself “What else can I learn from this?” or “What is this teaching me?”