Become Happier and More Fulfilled Through Learning

Knowledge, like air, is vital to life.

Having learned something is fantastic. Sure, the act of learning itself can be, and often is quite enjoyable as well, but it’s nothing compared to the sense of fulfilment you get after just having learned something. To be able to look at a map of the world and name every country, to open a book in a foreign language and understand every sentence, or to be able to automate a boring task with a programming language you recently learned; learning something new does to life what unlocking a new level does to a video game.

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I first began noticing this after I started learning all the countries and capitals of the world. When I read the news, instead of the countries mentioned just being “some distant land I don’t know,” they were now actual, tangible places. For example, Ghana no longer is “a country in Africa,” it’s now “a West African coastal country below Burkina Faso, between Cote d’Ivoire and Togo, with a capital called ‘Accra.’” Bosnia and Herzegovina is no longer “one of the countless small countries of Eastern Europe,” it’s “the country located in the ‘crescent’ of Croatia, also bordering Serbia and Montenegro.”

This change in how you perceive something doesn’t just happen with countries. Ever since I read the Wikipedia article on frogs, seeing a frog has become an engaging experience. Now that I know a little about what types of frogs there are, how frogs evolved, and how they live, instead of: “Hey, that’s a frog,” I now think: “Hey, that’s a frog, I know how it works” when seeing a frog (which admittedly doesn’t happen all that often). This gives me a little bit of joy and makes me slightly happier.

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This isn’t some major ground-breaking revelation that will forever alter your life. This is just something that makes usually mundane things somewhat amusing. You won’t suddenly become happy all the time. You’ll just receive tiny bits of happiness every now and then.

However, the little differences do add up, and when you have enough knowledge, the world will start to seem holistic, which does make a big difference. That sentence might have sounded rather vague, so let me elaborate on that. When I say everything starts to seem ‘holistic,’ I mean that everything sort of fits together into one big whole eventually. You learn one country, and it’s just a single country. You learn a second country, and it’s just another country. But learn ten countries, and suddenly they’re no longer unrelated bits of knowledge in your head, they actually start fitting together like pieces of a puzzle. If you just know the locations of France and Portugal, you can’t do anything with that knowledge. But once you know where Spain is, you can connect that knowledge to both Portugal and France, thereby establishing a connection between France and Portugal.

Again, this doesn’t just apply to the locations of countries. All knowledge can fit into this intricate web that you’re building in your head. You might read that the earliest known fossil of a proto-frog was found in the early Triassic of Madagascar. After that, you read about the Battle of Madagascar in 1942. Suddenly, two seemingly unrelated topics, frogs and the Second World War are related to each other. The goal is to eventually build a web of knowledge so vast that any piece of knowledge can be connected to any other piece of knowledge.

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Not only does creating such a web of knowledge help tremendously with learning new knowledge afterwards — random facts are way more difficult to remember than facts which you can link to something you already know — but having a deep internalised understanding of how intertwined everything is, also completely changes your outlook on life in general.

How to Decide What to Learn

What I just said may all sound well and good, but how do you achieve this? After all, it is impossible to learn everything there is to know. Even if the universe isn’t infinite in size (which it very well may be), it is still so big that a human can’t possibly learn everything.

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Because of this, it is crucial to plan what you are going to learn deliberately. There are over 12,500 discovered species of ants, so you could waste a decade or more learning all their names, but does knowing the scientific names of an ant species only found in a small pocket deep in the Amazon rainforest improve your life in any way? I doubt it.

Countries

The first and most important thing to learn is, in my opinion, the countries of the world. The reasoning behind this is quite simple. Anything that happens on Earth happens in a location on Earth, and every location (except for some bodies of water and Antarctica) is owned by a country. Because of that, knowing every country’s position will give you a new way to connect new knowledge to prior knowledge every time you learn something new, and as per the study linked earlier in this article, things are easier to learn if you can connect them to something you already know.

Time Spans

After that, it might be a good idea to learn some basic geologic time divisions. Just like how everything happens somewhere, everything also happens some time. You don’t have to know every single time division of the history of the earth — a monumental task that even I’m not brave enough to take on yet — but just knowing when the ‘important’ divisions started and ended will make reading about anything related to animals, plants, or biology in general way easier. When I say ‘important’ distinctions I am mainly talking about the ones seen on the Wikipedia page which I linked earlier in this article:

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If you learn these 50 or so divisions (I know that sounds like a lot of work, but this can be done in a week of learning 15 minutes a day) you will be able to read almost everything relating to biology or geography — while other divisions exist, they are rarely used.

Whatever You Want

After that, it’s really up to you what you decide to learn. I recommend learning about a wide variety of subjects; after all: “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.” Nonetheless, to keep learning fun, you should mostly read about what you find interesting; this isn’t school, no one is forcing you to read things you don’t like, and it’s better to learn slightly inefficiently but in a fun way for your entire life than to learn as efficiently as possible for a week after which you quit because it makes you sad and depressed. YouTube videos are a great resource as well, I personally really recommend the various SciShow and PBS channels, but something to keep in mind is that you probably remember less from watching YouTube videos than from reading because reading is an active activity while watching and listening are both passive activities.

How to Learn Efficiently

All this learning might sound like it would take a lot of time and effort, but it isn’t. Not if you use a spaced repetition system (SRS). An excellent interactive explanation of what spaced repetition is by Canadian game developer Nicky Case can be found here. All her other explorable explorations are brilliant as well, and I would definitely recommend playing/reading those too.

The software I use for spaced repetition is called Anki; it is probably the most used SRS there is. It’s already ubiquitous in several communities, like the Japanese learning community and medical school, but for some reason, a lot of people still don’t know it exists. I would explain it, but articles and videos explaining how Anki works already abound on the internet, so if you’re interested you can find plenty of resources on it.

Conclusion

Because of how the school system works, a lot of people believe that learning is what you do in school and nowhere else, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Learning is a fun and productive activity anyone can and should engage in. It will widen your worldview, it will make acquiring new information easier, and it’s just incredibly fulfilling after you have finally learned something.

High School Student from the Netherlands--part-time writer, full-time thinker

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