The New York Times once featured an article about the commuter train from Long Island into New York City. Amongst the dozens of cars on the train is an odd one.
In it is a group of people studying the massive set of Jewish legal books known as the Talmud. Every weekday morning men and women gather in this car and study and debate topics that Jewish scholars have discussed for 2000 years.
Is It a waste of time?
What motivates a group consisting primarily of corporate attorneys and financial professionals to spend 45 minutes to an hour debating ancient Jewish laws? It doesn’t seem like the most practical use of time. They could be reading the newspaper or answering e-mails.
For people of faith, it makes all the sense in the world. In Judaism study is a religious imperative, a way of discerning what God asks us to do. It is not have to be practical. It does not serve an external cause like getting good grades or learning a new sales technique. We do it for God.
The ever-growing brain
How can this ancient ideal help us? Is it a waste of time to study or engage with something that does not seem immediately practical or useful? Absolutely not.
The Jewish sages understood something that psychologists, neuroscientists and leadership experts today are just beginning to understanding. They saw that our brains can grow and change throughout our lives.
Indeed, in the late 1990s, scientists proved that our brains grow and adapt constantly. We add brain cells, and our current ones grow and rearrange themselves.
And as scientists uncovered in 2007, when we believe we can continue to learn throughout our lives, we are more likely to retain and use what we learn. In other words, a belief in our brain’s power helps make it work harder.
Can Learning Make Us Happier?
Absolutely. It may not always seem so. If we have had a long day and come home and want to relax, turning on the television may seem a lot easier than opening up a book. One brings immediate gratification. Another has longer-lasting effects.
A week later, however, we may regard spending two hours watching television as a waste of time, especially if we could have finished a meaningful novel or read an inspiring essay or inspirational passage. A commitment to learning pushes us to live for lasting satisfaction rather than short-term pleasure. It is the secret ingredient to happiness.
How to get started
First, take a look at an article I wrote on how to study the Bible and enjoy it. The suggestions there apply to many kinds of study.
Second, consider an ancient Jewish tradition. When students in Jewish schools begin studying their first page of the Bible, they take a taste of honey. This practice is meant to create an association between study and sweetness. Learning is not something we should dread. It is something we should enjoy.
Just as we can make exercise more enjoyable when we do it with others, we can also try to study with friends and family. And we can try not too make our conversation too serious or intimidating.
I occasionally see people in the coffee house studying the Bible with looks of dread or unhappiness on their faces. It does not have to be that way. When we do it well, learning opens us up to the blessings of life.
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