Many years ago, early in marriage, I had my husband take the VIA Character Strengths Survey. I suppose that is the life of being married to a psychologist. He took it during law school- during class, I’m pretty sure, as he’s always been a multitasker (and was unsurprisingly penalized by a professor for his constant need to accomplish other tasks while listening to the lectures). Back then, the survey was hosted on the University of Pennsylvania website and the report was formatted a bit differently than it is today.
But its results rang exceptionally true; even more so today than it did back then. Curiosity and love of learning soared to the top of his list of signature strengths. Two of the most closely related strengths, this power duo represents that insatiable thirst for knowledge and the desire to know more and acquire knowledge.
During this pandemic, few were more prepared for endless days at home than introverts (me, my loved ones, and most of my therapy clients!) and those with a deep love of learning. You see, endless days of unstructured time are a learner’s paradise. While sales of exercise machines such as the famous Peloton rapidly increased during the pandemic, so did the purchase of puzzles, art kits, and other DIY crafts and projects. The Home Depot and Lowes actually did just fine during this period, with increased sales due to "nesting," as individuals learned everything from how to build that pergola to harvesting their own vegetables.
In our household, stacks of books for learning French, German, and Italian came in towering boxes at our door. My husband was admitted to one of Harvard’s online business programs so he could learn even more about finance, while also exploring a half dozen other educational enrichment opportunities in law. Countless others around the world also dove into e-learning. Yale started offering their most popular course, The Science of Well-Being, online for free and registration soared. I took it upon myself to become the family expert in childhood vaccines (and the controversies around them) in addition to teaching a new clinical theories class I’d never taught before. We jointly plan to learn a bit more about electrical wiring when we install our new doorbell. Needless to say, learning and acquiring new knowledge is a way of life in our household even more today than ever before.
It is ever tempting in these uncertain times to numb out. After all, millions are unemployed without the luxury to focus on learning for pleasure. Netflix has responded accordingly, of course, providing one of the most ubiquitous drugs of all — endless television binges. Sales and dependence on alcohol and illicit substances have also increased during this time.
And yet, at the same time, individuals have been forced to tap into their creativity and other interests. Perhaps one of the wittiest memes to emerge (for those of us who are fans) was about Taylor Swift producing an entire studio album while the rest of us were baking banana bread and perfecting tie-dye. Needless to say, channeling our creative energies into learning and doing more can be heaven-sent.
Whether it is encouraging your teen to take that online Spanish class so they don’t have to worry about it next year, or brushing up on your own skills to be more marketable in a new and emerging post-COVID economy, learning something new can create a sense of self-efficacy, confidence, and purpose. It can get us out of our mental ruts and into a more focused way of seeing an uncertain future. Instead of allowing ourselves to wallow in despair, it can give us the impetus to think creatively about where the world is headed and how we can get a head start.
Even if our goals aren’t quite so lofty, simply savoring the joy of a newfound skill in knitting, finally learning to play the piano, or any number of smaller accomplishments are deeply meaningful nonetheless. We may even learn to develop and cultivate character strengths in ourselves and encourage strengths in our children, finding the incredible gifts we already possess in the here and now. Perhaps if all of us emerged with even one new skill that we learned and can apply to our futures, there is always the possibility that it was the compass that steered our ship into unchartered still waters.