CHEERS: John Torquse, Patricia Sumner and Roger Cartwright celebrate the joy of learning.
CHEERS: John Torquse, Patricia Sumner and Roger Cartwright celebrate the joy of learning.

Lifetime learning offers the joy of having purpose

IT'S the stuff of fairy tales. Snake oil. Miracle cures.

I have studied psychology for more than 50 years and I still find it hard to believe. What I am confronted with, what I instinctively want to dismiss as too good to be true, is coming out of evidence-based science.

Not only the soft sciences of social and personal psychology but the hard sciences of neuroplasticity and epigenetics.

If long words vouch for authenticity, this must be real.

It is what the Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer calls the psychology of possibility. Her research and that of other scientists for more than 50 years has overturned the received knowledge regarding ageing, health and well-being.

Consider this. Researchers at Harvard took a cohort of people over 50, matched for baseline physical and mental health. They were rated on a well-being scale, which measured their sense of purpose and meaning, their sense of life satisfaction and their feelings of happiness. The study followed the participants for nine years. In that time 30% of those who rated low on those well-being measures had died. Only 9% of those who rated high had died.

So, what contributes to our sense of meaning and well-being? Research by the World Health Organisation identifies a range of factors. These include having strong social networks, volunteering and continuing to build our skills and knowledge. Amazingly, these contribute to health and well-being as significantly as lifestyle factors such as eating well, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising and not smoking or drinking.

Survival seems to depend on finding a community of people you like with activities you like in your local area. One such community is the University of the Third Age. I am the president of U3A Pine Rivers.

What is the University of the Third Age?

The U3A concept began in France in the 1970s and there are now close to 250 groups across Australia. The Third Age refers to that time in your life when your work and family rearing commitments are behind you and you have time to take up a field of interest that you find inviting. This concept of university is very broad - it encompasses the traditional domains of languages, history and sciences.

However, it also attends to the practical arts: choir, band, drama, theatre, cinema, exercise, tai chi yoga and walking groups; craft, cards, croquet, and archery to name but a few.

Volunteers perform every role in the association including president, reception, publicity, tutors and activity facilitators. This means all courses and activities are available at minimal cost. People do not have to meet any entrance requirements. The university does not have exams or issue qualifications. It is a learning exchange between equals.

Given this, what's on your bucket list of things to do before you die?

For Hermione Van Loo, a member of U3A, at 82, the sky's the limit as she flings herself from an aircraft and hurtles earthward at 220km an hour.

For John Targuse its treading the boards as a member of U3A's drama group. For Brian, it's playing piano with the U3A keyboard club.

For these people, age is no barrier to increased participation and skills development.

Shakespeare talked about our final age as a time where we are "sans hair, sans teeth, sans everything”.

For people of the Third Age it is a time of increasing competence.

U3A Pine Rivers has a Centre at 1480 Anzac Ave, Kallangur where reception is open from 9am to 12pm each weekday. Visit for more.

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