…or the drums. Even jazz flute would do.
As video game designers realized long ago, if you can keep a player poised on the knife’s edge of conquering new challenges, neither too easy and too hard but square in what the cognitive psychologist Vygotsky called the Zone of Proximal Development, you can keep gamers engaged for hours. As long as we constantly feel challenged but never overwhelmed, we keep coming back for more and constantly sharpen new skills.
The trouble, though, with most video games lies in what they teach, which often stays with the game when the game is complete. A game that makes you good at shooting aliens may have little application in the real world.
Learning a more lasting new skill - be it playing guitar or learning to speak a foreign language - can equally harness the brain’s joy of learning new things, but leave you with something of permanent value, in a way that neither drugs nor video games ever could. It leaves you with a sense of fulfillment, which goes back to what pioneering psychologist Abraham Maslow called “self-actualization.”
As Aristotle realized, there is a difference between the pleasures of the moment (hedonia), and the satisfaction that comes from constantly developing and living one’s life to the fullest (eudaimonia). In recent years, scientists have finally begun to study eudaimonia. Research suggests that the greater sense of purpose and personal growth associated with eudaimonia correlates with lower cortisol levels, better immune function and more efficient sleep.
From the strict “Selfish Gene” perspective - in which all that we do is driven by the self-perpetuating interests of our individual genes – hobbies like playing music rarely make sense, especially for mere amateurs. But maybe the art of reinvention and acquiring new skills, even as adults, can give us a sense of a life well-lived.