What, if any, are the benefits of lifelong learning to us as individuals, beyond its impact on employment progression? Does it matter what we learn about, or if we learn in-person or online? What are the criteria that make learning meaningful? And how does learning change over time? One striking finding about learning in the UK, for example, is that it is the one of the five ways to wellbeing that drops off most dramatically with age.
Long- and short-term benefits
The obvious goal of the countless adult learning courses and training on offer is mainly to improve the way we work, or change our work completely. But the evidence reveals that learning has an interesting and complex relationship with wellbeing. In the short term, the impact on wellbeing can be negative. Meeting essay deadlines or taking exams, for example, can increase stress or reduce social interactions with friends, which are factors that contribute to our subjective wellbeing.
When you take a longer view, however, additional formal qualifications or education shows a slightly positive impact on a person’s wellbeing. Again, this seems to correlate to what we might expect. For instance, we know there is a strong link between employment, especially high-quality jobs, and wellbeing. So where qualifications can lead to employment and higher quality jobs, it appears to be a good thing.
Proving causation is difficult
It also makes sense that where the process itself of formal and informal learning reduces isolation, there are benefits to participants’ wellbeing. Evidence from observational studies – non-intervention studies that assess naturally occurring levels of learning, such as qualification or accreditation gained, or job status – supports a relationship between wellbeing and learning. Although identifying the causal mechanism has been more difficult: do happier people engage in more learning opportunities, or do learning opportunities make people happier?
Around 20% of adults engage with job-related training, and 3% with hobbies and leisure related training. When it comes to people who are unemployed:
- Low intensity job-related training can reduce life satisfaction.
- High intensity hobbies and leisure training can boost life satisfaction
Younger adults (16 to 24 years) both win and lose from job-related training
- Low intensity training results in a decline in life satisfaction for younger adults.
- High intensity job-related training boosts life satisfaction for young adults.
When it comes to training in different areas of deprivation:
- For those living in medium and highly deprived areas of England, training is an important source of life satisfaction.
- The greatest boost to life satisfaction for those in deprived areas of England are from hobbies and leisure training.