As you near retirement, you know what’s good for you: Keep busy, keep learning, keep developing new skills.
But if you’re going to gain new skills, which skills should you learn?
Depending on the type of skill you pursue, you can enhance your cognition, mental acuity and zest for life. Put more effort and enthusiasm into pursuing it and you enjoy greater benefits.
Taking up hobbies in retirement is not necessarily the same thing as learning a new skill, says Rachel Wu, an associate professor of psychology at University of California, Riverside.
“It’s a more serious commitment to learn a new skill,” Wu said. “Give it at least a few months or a year” to practice and make progress.
As you weigh what skill to learn, keep an open mind. Consider delving into activities that you’ve avoided or even dreaded, such as public speaking or mastering tech devices.
“Don’t dismiss things before you try,” Wu said. “Learning is inherently frustrating” but well worth it.
Ideally, you’re adventurous and intellectually curious by nature. You treat retirement as an opportunity to sample lots of new skills, from painting to pickleball.
“Learn multiple skills if you can,” Wu said. “Even if two skills seem unrelated, there can be connections.”
For example, birding and playing piano have little in common at first glance. But both involve sensory awareness and motor skills.
Let’s say you’re newly retired and want to start slow in expanding your skill set. What’s the best new skill to take up?
“There’s no magic bullet that if you learn this one new thing, the better your aging will be,” said Carla Strickland-Hughes, an associate professor of psychology at University of the Pacific. “But if I had to pick one thing, it’s dancing.”
She says the ideal new skill engages you on three levels. It’s social, it sharpens your cognitive processes and it’s physically active. Dancing checks all three boxes.
Exercise is particularly important for retirees. So choosing a skill that requires physical exertion makes sense.
“Consider things that get your heart pumping,” Wu said. “There’s a large body of research on the cognitive and physiological reasons why your brain will be healthier if you engage in physical activity, especially if you meet with others” for group exercise.
For retirees who are in a wheelchair or otherwise unable to adopt certain physical exercise routines, learning a musical instrument or foreign language are great options. The key is to select new skills that are hard to learn and at least somewhat complex so that you keep advancing to the next level and “you won’t plateau,” Wu says.
Here’s where motivation comes into play. If you’re driven to learn something new—and it’s more than a passing whim where you give up after a few hours—you’re more likely to reap long-term benefits.
“It’s more important that you’re interested in the skill so that you stick with it,” Strickland-Hughes said. “Picking a specific skill you’re less interested in” solely because you heard it might extend longevity can backfire.
Your attitude affects your approach to learning. Adopt a growth mindset so that you’re ready and willing to explore new avenues and produce results that accrue from sustained effort and experimentation. That’s better than a fixed mindset where you resist veering outside your comfort zone.
If you say to yourself, “I can always get better at this if I try” and “I welcome feedback to improve,” you’re embracing a growth mindset, Strickland-Hughes says.
Even if you’re motivated to learn a new skill, too much self-criticism can impede your progress. A lack of confidence might kick in as well.
“If you want to be good at it right away, set that aside and become a student again,” said Jessica Church-Lang, an associate professor of psychology at University of Texas at Austin. The goal is to push yourself at your own pace without feeling pressure to excel.