Hearing the term “lifelong learning,” you might think, “Give me a break! Can’t I ever just enjoy life and do what I like to do? Do I really have to keep learning forever?”

As understandable as this sentiment is, it is based on a mistaken assumption, namely that learning has to be an effortful and intentional process. In fact, psychologists have shown, both behaviorally and on the level of the brain, that we simply cannot help learning as long as we are alive and free of neurological diseases such as dementia. Our brains and our entire organism have evolved to learn from everything we experience. Learning does not necessarily – and not even mostly – imply formal instruction or a conscious decision to learn.

Consequently, in many cases we are not even aware that learning is taking place. So perhaps we can free ourselves of some of the negative associations we may have with the idea of “lifelong learning”: strict teachers in stuffy schoolrooms, forcing us to accumulate knowledge about things we find utterly uninteresting and unrelated to our real lives. Indeed, most learning takes place in our real lives and is related to our everyday experiences.

Many aspects of learning change as we age – we learn new things less quickly and we forget more of what we learn than we did when we were younger. This does not
sound good. However, research in my lab (the “Life-Management Lab”) has revealed important positive aspects of learning as we get older. In general, we find that people learn how to successfully manage their lives as they move from adolescence into adulthood and from young to middle and finally old age.

“Learning does not necessarily – and not even mostly – imply formal instruction or a conscious decision to learn.”

Personal goals play an important role in how people manage their lives. So learning how to set and pursue goals is essential, and older adults outperform younger adults in both regards. I will focus here on two motivational competencies that are associated with positive trajectories of lifelong learning: (1) building an adaptive goal system, and (2) focusing on the process rather than the outcome of goal pursuit.

Building an adaptive goal system

In a series of studies conducted with my former student Michaela Riediger, who is soon to be a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Jena, we found that people learn how to build an adaptive goal system over the course of adulthood. Older adults report fewer conflicts between their personal goals, and say that their goals tend to support each other.

It appears that this is not simply because older adults, most of whom are retired, have more time and leisure to pursue their goals. In fact, retirees often seem to have more commitments than they did when they were younger. So how do older adults do it? What have they learned? Results of our studies suggest that older adults are more likely to set goals in the domains that are most significant to them, weeding out goals that are related to less important domains.

For example, the top goals of a 23-year-old recent college graduate – let’s call him Tim – might be to “exercise regularly” (a goal related to the domain of health) and to “get a job” (a professional goal). If professional advancement is very important to him, but health is not (yet), then these goals would include both important and less important domains of his life. In contrast, the main goals of Linda, a 73-year old retiree, are more likely to focus on domains she finds highly significant. She, too, might want to “exercise regularly” and also to “spend time with my grandchildren” (a goal related to the domain of family). For Linda, however, health and family are of the utmost importance. In other words, in contrast to Tim, Linda focuses her goals on two domains that are of particular importance to her life.

Perhaps Linda might decide to exercise with her grandchildren by going for walks in the woods. This would allow one goal to support another, rather than competing for her time. In general, when goals are concentrated in central life domains, they are more likely to facilitate one another and less likely to conflict with one another. And it is important to note that a system built on converging goals contributes to higher subjective well-being and makes it easier to pursue those goals successfully.

Focusing on the process

Imagine that you – like Tim and Linda – want to start exercising regularly. You might focus primarily on the consequences and benefits of regular physical exercise, such as losing weight or gaining strength and improving your health. We call this an “outcome focus.” In contrast, you might focus more attention on how you pursue your goal of exercising regularly – whether you should take up swimming or attend classes at a gym, the best days of the week to exercise, or finding a partner to exercise with. We call this a “process focus.”

In the studies conducted in the Life-Management lab, we find that younger adults are primarily focused on outcomes and that people become increasingly process-focused as they grow older. It appears that they learn to adopt a process focus as they realize that the satisfaction and happiness derived from outcomes last for only a short period of time. Then the “hedonic treadmill” sets in: There are always higher mountains to climb, better positions to be held, more pounds to be lost — in short: after achieving one outcome, there are many new ones still waiting to be attained.

In contrast, people who take the attitude that “the path is the goal” are less likely to procrastinate, more likely to keep working toward their goal even in the face of setbacks, and maintain a better mood even when the goal is difficult and not great fun (such as dieting or, for some of us, exercising regularly). Not surprisingly, older adults in our studies are not only happier, but they are typically also more successful in their goal pursuit.

As these two examples show, our research suggests that we acquire very important
motivational competencies across adulthood that help us build a good goal system
and focus in an adaptive way on the process, rather than concentrating on the outcome. Lifelong learning, it seems, may be more fun and more relevant than you might have thought.

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