Friday thought #70 Are we ever too old to learn new skills?

It has been said that, ‘Continuing to learn well into adulthood is beneficial to health and happiness.’ But despite the obvious benefits of continued learning, the vast majority of people will never have the opportunity to experience this enhanced health and happiness,  because once you finish your formal education, learning becomes optional rather than compulsory. For most people, learning is what you do at school, and once all that necessity is behind them they are quite happy to potter on through life enjoying what they already have. And of course there is nothing wrong with that, but the positive effects of continued learning are difficult to ignore.

To start with there are clear health benefits, indeed it has been found that adults who keep both body and brain active are far less likely to develop illnesses such as dementia in later life. And anyone who has committed to taking up a new skill as an adult can surely attest to the positive effects on wellbeing and attitude. These could be things as small as taking a cookery class, joining a yoga group, or learning a new language, and it doesn’t have to be just for those who have recently retired! For some, formal education finishes at 16, and there is a great deal of life still ahead to simply sit and stagnate!

Of course learning a new skill or taking up a new hobby requires time, effort, motivation and the determination to succeed, or at least to give it your best shot. It’s too easy to just sit back and carry on with what you already know. After all, how many people need another language? What’s the point of taking a painting class? What is there to be gained from learning how to play the guitar? But it isn’t all about the end result, why does there always need to be a logical reason? Why not just “because I want to”?, or “because you’re never too old to keep learning”?

Having recently moved to Austria with absolutely zero German abilities, I have started learning a new language from scratch. At the same time I decided that after many many years of wishing I could play the piano, I am also now taking lessons, as a complete beginner! At first both were very difficult, and many times I considered giving up. After all, nobody needs to play an instrument, or speak more than one language, and being an adult you have many more pressing things to do than practice piano. But perseverance is the key, and from the simple act of learning, and ultimately improving, comes such a wonderful feeling of achievement and a great sense of wellbeing. It makes you realise that you haven’t really learnt anything for such a long time, and I mean really learnt, from not being able to say a word, to making yourself understood and forming whole sentences. Or from being able to cobble together chopsticks on a keyboard, to reading music, playing chords and putting together proper tunes.

It’s a wonderful feeling, and I am so glad that I finally got round to doing these things. With all the pressures and stresses of life it is so easy to continually put it off. “Maybe next year”, “I don’t have time at the minute”… etc etc. I can speak from personal experience here that we should never stop learning. To plateau is to get bored, and as they say, variety is the spice of life. Don’t just think about it, do it!

Top Reasons to Learn a Language Abroad


Friday thought #18 Having fun in your thirties!

So just a few days to go until Christmas, and this time of year should be all about spending time with your family, perhaps catching up with people you rarely see, and most of all, having fun. Although I really do subscribe to the belief that you should always have fun. No matter how old you are, no matter where life takes you or what you choose to do with yourself, having fun and enjoying your life should always be top of the list.

Obviously I can’t speak for every situation or circumstance, but I feel I come across and hear about far too many people who simply don’t enjoy their life. Too many people get bogged down by aspects of life that really don’t matter and really shouldn’t have time wasted on them. Seemingly simple things have the ability to make you so happy and without sounding terribly cheesy, can really change your perspective on those little niggles that were so weighing on your mind. And these things often require very little money, and even less of your time, they just need a bit of imagination.

With the arrival of winter and the dark nights creeping earlier and earlier, it’s tempting to hide indoors, hidden away from the cold, damp weather, but as many of us know, this can lead to feeling heavy, grumpy and generally a bit despondent. Heaving yourself up and out to do something as simple as having lunch with friends or going for a walk or a run can make the world of difference. It re-energises you, clears the cobwebs and makes you so much more effective and useful in whatever else you choose to do with your day.

Maybe working with children keeps you feeling young, in which case I have an unfair advantage, but I recently re-discovered an activity which is clearly designed for children (and only children!) But in my opinion should be enjoyed by adults of all ages at every possible opportunity. And this wild discovery is… Going down the twirly slide at the local swimming pool!

Who says slides are only for kids? Yes a gaggle of 30 year old women did get some unusual, and slightly disapproving looks from both the lifeguards and the serious lane swimmers. However, I haven’t seen sheer joy like that on the faces of my friends for a long time, the kind of joy that is generally only reserved for children under the age of 8.

So I’ve decided, yes it’s important to act responsibly and show maturity in most aspects of your life once you reach ‘adulthood’, but this does not mean that fun has to stop. You can still build a snowman, have a snowball fight, and yes you can go down the slide at the local swimming pool, whether you are in the company of a child or not! Laughter is the best feeling and so desperately important in what can otherwise be quite a serious, stressful and often dull existence. So every now and again, go out, do something that makes you smile and let go. It doesn’t have to involve huge amounts of planning or financial commitment, it could be something as simple as going down the slide!

I remember reading the following quote when I was younger, and it’s never rung truer than right now: “You don’t stop playing because you grow old, you grow old because you stop playing”.

Just do it!
Just do it!

Friday Thought #4 The simple joy created by a pet waiting for you at home

I didn’t grow up with a cat or a dog, therefore I never really had strong feelings either for or against the household pets as a child. We had the standard hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs etc, but occasionally poking at a small creature in a cage isn’t quite the same as taking your dog for a walk. Having no personal experience of these pets, my only opinions were formed through limited time spent with friends’ pets. I grew up with the belief that dogs were big, goofy, friendly creatures who were ‘man’s best friend’ and always keen for a walk.   Cats on the other hand were generally considered to be reasonably unfriendly creatures who either slept all day or stalked around, aloof and uninterested. I always liked the idea of having a dog but assumed taking care of them would be too much work, and was never really interested in having a cat as I didn’t really see the point. So overall, as a family we weren’t really pet people.

So a few years ago when my boyfriend suggested we get a cat, I wasn’t massively enthused. I didn’t see the benefit of a hoity toity creature stalking around, ignoring us completely and coming and going when it pleased. But it didn’t offend me too much either and as he was desperately keen, I obliged. And then Lilou arrived, possibly the most un-cat-like cat that’s ever lived. She was desperate for constant attention, loved a belly rub and was only happy whilst sitting on your knee. I had no idea how much I was going to love having a cat as a pet until Lilou came along. However Lilou was a rescue cat and quite elderly. We only had her for a year and a half before she died, but had to remind ourselves that her last 18 months of life with us had to beat being in a cage.

But I had the bug, coming home to a now empty house was unbearable. Sure it’s ‘only a cat’, but the joy created from a creature waiting for you as soon as you walk through the door is something that you just don’t appreciate until it’s not there anymore. After a month of being ‘cat-less’ we decided it was time to get a new one. Not a replacement for Lilou, but a new pet for us. So along came Gozo. It was difficult to imagine a cat more affectionate and more un-cat-like than the last one, but we’ve managed to hit the jackpot once again and have adopted one of the cutest creatures on earth!

I can safely say that I am now a ‘cat person’, not suggesting that means I’m not a ‘dog person’ as I’m fairly sure you can be a fan of both, but I can no longer imagine a house without a cuddly creature wandering around and despite the fact that Gozo might be around for the next 15 years or more, I already feel nervous for when he’s not!

 Gozo the cat

The cutest cat in the World?!
The cutest cat in the World?!

Friday Thought #3 Seeing the same view from a new perspective

Anyone across Europe would be hard pushed to disagree that this has been one of the worst summers in living memory, weather-wise. Despite an early heat surge in late May/early June, lulling us all in to a false sense of security, July was abysmal and August not much better, well certainly throughout Western Europe anyway. In the final weeks of August here in the Alps we were experiencing midday highs of lower than 20C, and an afternoon thunderstorm that you could almost set your watch to; hardly what you’d expect from summer in France. However, it’s not all doom and gloom, there have been some lovely sunny days and if you are feeling enterprising you can always make the most whatever the weather, even if that means charging uphill in the rain for several hours simply to get some exercise!

I will generally spend a large part of my summer holidays rock climbing and mountaineering, but with rain forecast almost every day it was difficult to ever get a firm plan in place and in the high mountains, heavy rain means snow; not ideal for climbing on rocks. The last few weeks have seen the return to work and to more of a routine, and of course coinciding perfectly with this, the sun has come out and stayed out for the past week or so! Despite having a wonderfully extended summer holiday, I often find that once I return to work I end up doing more, as time seems more precious when you have less of it. When you have every day free it’s not so pressing to get out and make the most of every minute! So I have thoroughly enjoyed this unexpected week of warm weather and have used it to explore the hidden corners of this valley, places that are sitting literally on my doorstep, but which I have never set foot in.

I have lived here for almost 8 years now and feel like by now I should have seen every view. Of course no-one even in a whole lifetime will walk every trail or slide across every skiable patch of snow, but despite having spent so much time in these mountains, I am constantly amazed at how much there is still to discover. A simple run up in to the mountains behind my house last week revealed a completely new area I didn’t even know existed; full of charming chalets and beautiful meadows, and a day hike suggested by a friend took us across an area I had never considered walking to before. We were absolutely astonished that the view across the valley to Mont Blanc that we had looked at so many hundreds of times before could look so different and unveil smaller peaks and features that you simply can’t see from anywhere else. Looking down from a small peak to discover a series of hidden mountain lakes that can only be found by your own exertions is a wonderful feeling, especially when you are the only people there!

This is why I love the mountains so much. You can look at the same view day in day out and it will never be the same, and if you take the time to step out of your door on a sunny day and explore these wonderful places, you are guaranteed to see something that will take your breath away, and you might even discover something completely new!

Secret hidden lakes!
Secret hidden lakes!

Money or time? Which is more valuable?

I’m sure this is a dilemma which faces most people at some point in their lives, many on a daily basis. What is more important; money or your time? Is working a 60 hour week with no free evenings, no weekends and no time with your family and friends worth it if you make plenty of money? Or is it ok to make less money but have more free time to do the things we enjoy doing? I worry sometimes that today’s society is so work driven that many people have forgotten what it’s like to do the things they enjoy and define themselves by their job title rather than their personality or virtues. Indeed I am discovering more and more often that without work people have no idea what to do with their time. Whatever happened to hobbies and interests? Making the most of time off?

Of course, money is vital. Without it we couldn’t live and essentially it is what makes the modern world go round. I love meeting people who have chosen a career or a job because they genuinely enjoy it, because I think that this is happening less and less. Very few people you will come across nowadays have a real affection for their occupation and even fewer actually enjoy going to work.  I often wonder whether people are making their career choices purely driven by money, or because if they were honest with themselves, they don’t really know what else to do…?

I have decided to take a part time job-share for next year and I have been amazed at how many people have looked at me in surprise and asked ‘What will you do instead?’ Managing to fill my days with activities I enjoy has never been something I’ve struggled with, yet so many can not possibly comprehend what else I would do with my time if I’m not at work. Which brings me back to my question. Has money become more important than time? Has working and earning taken over people’s lives to such an extent that they no longer yearn for those things they enjoy, instead unquestioningly accepting the fact that they must work and earn as much money as is humanly possible?

I’ve said it before and I’m sure this isn’t the last time it’ll be referred to here. We are only here once and we need to make the most of it. When I’m an elderly lady and reflecting on my life and choices, I don’t want to look back and wish that I hadn’t spent the majority of my life on earth slogging away at work. I’d like to look back and realise that yes, I could have had more money and lived a more lavish lifestyle, but instead I chose to live a simpler life, doing the things I enjoy and living life to the full.

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Should you move for the job or the place?

Only once have I moved somewhere to follow a job, and that was as a young newly qualified teacher who needed year of experience under my belt, so for the sake of ten months it didn’t really matter to me where I went. It was pretty dull, but a means to an end and since then I would never dream of moving somewhere I hadn’t chosen purely to follow a job. I’ve always lived in places that I want to live, places that I chose. But I’m very aware that this isn’t really the norm. Almost everyone you meet is where they are because either them or their partner has followed a job. I guess to most this seems like an obvious life choice, go where you can earn money, but it strikes me as surprising how highly people place jobs and careers on their list of priorities, and I’m intrigued as to why more people don’t consider where they would like to be and their quality of life as a lot more important. Indeed an astonishing number of people you meet have reached retirement having lived in a mediocre town that they simply tolerated rather than enjoyed, for the majority of their working lives. A two week holiday once a year is their only chance to escape to somewhere they enjoy. Fifty weeks of slog for two weeks of reward just doesn’t seem enough to me.

When I moved back to the Alps many years ago and got a teaching job, I lost track of the amount of new colleagues who asked me “So is your husband working here?” And oh the strange and bewildered looks I got for saying that no, my husband didn’t have a job here, I had chosen to move here!

Of course there are the obvious drawbacks to simply following your desires, and being reckless often doesn’t work out for the best, but sometimes I wonder whether people focus too much on money, jobs and careers, and forget that their own happiness also counts. How many people stop and consider whether they actually like living where they do? Or have they just grown accustomed to it, and aren’t brave enough to think about changing? I spend a lot of time considering these things, and like to think that I’ve found a healthy balance. I love my job, and could be doing exactly the same thing in a place I hate, but instead I chose to explore my options, and I discovered to my delight that there was a way of doing what I love, in a place I love.

My thoughts are, you only live once, so make the most of it…

Happiness and choices

Thoughts on happiness

How your life choices can have such a profound impact on your life and happiness.

I spend a lot of time thinking about lifestyle choices, career choices, and just choices in general. Why and how do people make the choices they do? What really rings true for me, is how many people I come across that quite openly admit that they either hate their job, hate where they live, or can’t stand the people they live with. So why continue on with a lifestyle that clearly makes you unhappy? Obviously there are countless answers to this question, and of course for some, there is no other choice, but this is not the case for so many. It is a true cliché that the grass is always greener, and I will hold my hand up and say that I, along with so many others, am a victim of this. Yet rather than view this as a negative, as something that you must try and avoid at all costs, I see this as a healthy way to live your life. It is perfectly natural to dream of different things, or to wonder what the next adventure or challenge might be. Of course you must be happy with what you have, but if you can’t look forward and dream of more, won’t you just stand still for the rest of your life?

From my personal experience, I have found that one of the main reasons people become stuck in a lifestyle that doesn’t fulfil them, is the fear of the unknown, and the sheer terror of stepping outside of their comfort zone. I have been living in France for several years, and even now when I return to England I am told by friends and acquaintances that I am ‘so lucky’ to be living the life I do. As gentle a sentiment as this flyaway comment is, I am often left resenting the inference that my lifestyle landed on my lap, as if I had recently stumbled across an unexpected inheritance, or a lottery win.

Of course not everyone can up sticks and follow their dreams, but what I am finding more and more are those who either have a dream and are too afraid to follow it because it would disrupt their safe life, or those who are spending their life doing a job or living in a place they hate, but can’t muster up either the energy or the drive to find something that inspires them. Statistics say that for people working 40 hours a week, over 30 percent of their lives are spent working. It is a large chunk of your life to throw away on a job that leaves you feeling unfulfilled, or at worst, unhappy.

I have found that the other important factor in quality of life and happiness, is where you live. Yes you may be in a job that perhaps wouldn’t be your first choice, and is a bit of a drag. But if you can spend every evening and every weekend doing the things you love, in a place you love, life suddenly doesn’t seem so bad. Sometimes it is necessary to stick out a rough few years in order to get where you want, but if you are aiming for a goal, or doing something uninspiring to pay for something you have had your heart set on, it makes a huge amount of difference to your motivation and work ethic. I spent a fairly unhappy few years in places I didn’t really enjoy, but I had my goal in sight and I was aiming for it. You can make the most of a less than perfect situation, if you have the courage to look further afield, and pursue something that will make you happy, even if at first it seems out of reach or too much hard work.

Amazing stones, Vancouver
Amazing stones, Vancouver