by Jake Leary
As living organisms, we alternate between work and rest, but we also choose between work and play. Accomplishing a goal usually sacrifices immediate pleasures. You play because it’s fun and internally rewarding. At times, you probably feel torn between choosing things you want to do and things you should do. But, plenty of enjoyable and pleasurable things can double to help accomplish important goals — we don’t always need to choose one or another.
Playing sports is usually fun and also improves upon your physical fitness. You can enjoy reading this article and also learn something from it: “Choose a job you love, and you will never work a day in your life.” We all have different goals and interests, but if we can learn to bridge this gap between work and play, we can actually be much happier.
Schools focus on building a life around work. This tends to be boring, which is a problem because people don’t learn much when they’re not interested. At school, students learn to fake it — how ironic to fake learning! At the end of the semester, when the tests are over, so many of us forget most of what we “learned” and only retain what we found to be actually interesting.
It is natural to forget unpleasant memories and boring facts are generally forgettable. Critical thinking and problem-solving skills are not only more useful for our brains, but also easier for us to learn in a fun and engaging way. We should embrace this type of learning.
Despite monumental technological advancements, societal changes and developments in science, the foundation of the school system has barely changed in the past century. Understandably, the goal of education is to promote growth in students so that they can be successful.
Unfortunately, the traditional definition of success values external rewards more than internal ones: Money over happiness; test scores over student engagement; standardization over specialization. When it comes down to it, would you rather have money or happiness? External rewards (usually money) have been shown in countless studies to actually decrease motivation, creativity and productivity in otherwise internally rewarding tasks.
Students could learn so much more if work and play weren’t so segregated. Preschool and kindergarten could focus much more on physical education and teach the students about their bodies: what specific muscles do and how to stretch them and that eating nutritiously translates into long-lasting energy. It amazes me how many full-grown adults don’t understand these fundamental aspects of their own bodies. But, early education is not the main problem as far as I’m concerned.
For most students, school is generally fun until maybe third grade, when “play” shifts to “work.” How can learning remain fun and intrinsically rewarding if we have to prepare kids for the boring monotony of adult life? Check out my five suggestions that apply to all learning. If you have already graduated and are in the workplace, it is not too late! You are still learning every day and can probably stand to become more productive and happy.
Let My People Flow
Flow, a term coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, occurs when someone is engaging in something about which he or she is excited. When an activity is interesting and challenging enough to ignite motivation and doable enough to produce confidence, the result is the most fun, exciting and productive way to be a human. Attention is focused exactly where it needs to be to accomplish goals. It is a bridge between work and play.
Choose “Goldilocks” tasks — not too hard and not too easy — in order to experience flow.
We can cultivate flow and real learning by providing students with more choices. In my kindergarten class, we had one hour of the day called “choice.” We were able to choose between math and reading. I chose math every single day until I had completed all of the exercises in the book and then I had to choose reading for the rest of the semester.
I was devastated. High school was quite the opposite — I hated math so much and resented that I had to do it every day. People change and interests change. Students should always have the choice and be interested in what they are learning. In the workplace, you should strive for a job that gives you the most autonomy, which is a better predictor of job satisfaction than salary.
More Physical Activity
It should come as no surprise that sitting down most of the day is bad for your physical health and your body. Well, it’s also bad for your brain. Studies have shown that physical exercise improve brain function, and that heart and brain health are closely linked.
“Cardiovascular health is more important than any other single factor in preserving and improving learning and memory,” says Thomas Crook, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and memory researcher. “You’re working out your brain at the same time as your heart.”
Think Of The Brain As A Muscle
A recent study showed that students who were told to think of their brains as muscles actually learned more math. Thinking of intelligence as fixed seems to cause students to focus on their rank in the class and to avoid making mistakes at all costs, rather than learning from them. The knowledge-as-muscle analogy runs surprisingly deep, given that the brain is not actually a muscle.
Knowledge, just like muscle, is built upon a network that you already possess. It is most effective if interesting, challenging and novel information excites it. Progress must be gradual, and without maintaining a certain level of activity, connections (or in the case of muscles, mass) and memory will diminish. Learning is work and requires rest, which brings me to my final suggestion.
Get Enough Sleep
Sleep is something that should be so easy to do pleasurably whilst accomplishing an important goal. Good sleep is necessary for health and happiness. When you get up naturally, soon after sunrise and flow during the day, you will work hard and will grow tired by the end of the day, allowing you to go to sleep early enough to repeat the cycle.
Teenagers biologically need more sleep than adults, yet we expect them to be at school at 8 am, an hour earlier than adults usually get to work. It is especially unrealistic to think that teenagers will simply go to bed earlier if we deprive them of excitement during the day. Instead, they will be full of energy at night and closer to flow, staying up late to make up for lost time and happiness.
I see a future with more individualized curricula that the students help to customize. I see a greater focus on health, athletics and the human body. I see happiness surpassing money as the main goal in life. I see increased motivation and productivity. I know that schools prepare kids for the real world, and in the real world, not everyone has a job they love. But, the world is constantly changing and the school curriculum has barely changed with it. It’s time for a change.