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Amaryllis Fox
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Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
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5 critical life skills everyone should have, according to WHO

Some basic areas we could all use some improvement in.

The WHO's 5 critical life skills
  • The World Health Organization identified 5 basic life skills that are crucial to cultivate and learn in order to have a better and more productive life.
  • Ranging from creative thinking to learning to cope with stress, these skills should be instilled in youth during their education and nurtured over a lifetime.
  • Although the best time to develop these skills is during one's youth, the second best time is right now.

It's no secret that our education system isn't ideal. Many of the life skills we need aren't being taught; instead, we focus on programming youth with industry-specific skills to prepare them for the workforce. Too often, this means that kids are graduating from high school and college ill-equipped to handle the broader challenges found in life. Though important, learning the structure of a cell won't teach you how to de-escalate conflict before it goes too far, and learning how to find the value of x won't teach you how not to crumble under pressure. Not only do life skills improve one's quality of life, they are also attractive to employers, who need workers that are mentally stable and well equipped to handle challenges and responsibilities that aren't listed on the job description.

That's why the World Health Organization (WHO) identified five fundamental life skills that are relevant for everybody, regardless of culture, education, or background. Specifically, the WHO focused on psychosocial skills rather than skills like, say, financial management or learning to cook. These are broad abilities that one can improve over time through conscious effort that deal with one's sense of self, sense of others, and cognitive abilities.

1. Decision-making and problem-solving

Everybody, even trust-fund babies, are faced with challenges and difficulties in their lives. Not all of us are talented at overcoming these challenges, however. Some misinterpret the premise of a problem, others work themselves in circles and get caught up in analysis paralysis. One way to make decisions and solve problems effectively is to follow Kristina Guo's DECIDE system, which she initially developed for health care managers:

  1. Define the problem
  2. Establish the criteria and constraints
  3. Consider all the alternatives
  4. Identify the best alternative
  5. Develop and implement a plan of action
  6. Evaluate and monitor the solution and feedback when necessary

If this seems far too clinical to you, another option is to follow Benjamin Franklin's method of decision-making, which he called "Prudential Algebra." When his friend Joseph Priestly wrote Franklin for advice on a problem, Franklin instead gave him a framework for making decisions. His method involves dividing a sheet into a pro and con column and listing out all of the reasons pro and con to a given decision. Then, Franklin would assign a weight to each pro and con according to their importance. Going down the list, if a pro and a con were of equal weight, he would cross them out. If a con were worth the weight of two pros, he would cross the three out. In this way, Franklin would wind up with a final list leaning towards either pro or con and make his decision accordingly. He would do this over the course of several days, so that his mind was always fresh when tackling the problem.

2. Creative thinking and critical thinking

We all know that there are few domains that don't rely heavily on creative and critical thinking. Defining critical thinking, though is a very slippery task. "At one level we all know what 'critical thinking' means — it means good thinking, almost the opposite of illogical, irrational, thinking," wrote Dr. Peter Facione in his essay "Critical Thinking: What It Is and Why It Counts." But there's more to it than that vague definition, of course. Facione asserts that "Critical thinking [is] purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based." Put simply, it's a self-aware, focused, analytical way of looking at things.

As it turns out, one of the best ways to improve one's critical thinking skills is to study the humanities. The trend has been to think of the humanities as some kind of vestigial tail trailing behind the rest of the more cutting-edge fields of study, a holdover from a time when poets were actually celebrities. However, the humanities has always been about teaching people to think well. Regrettably, humans have peculiar, bias-prone, and heuristics-reliant brains in place of more efficient and purpose-built computers, but we have to learn to work with what we've got.

There's research that backs this assertion up as well. One study from North Carolina State University, for instance, found that students enrolled in humanities courses became more skeptical of pseudoscience compared to those enrolled in a course on scientific research methods.

3. Communication and interpersonal skills

The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once said, "The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place." Without becoming gifted, or at least competent, in communication, you're at risk for experiencing constant misunderstandings and needless fights and arguments.

Good communicators make more money, have higher self-esteem, have better marriages, and are sought out more by employers. Although social anxiety can make it challenging to get out there, seeking out metacognitive therapy has been shown to be very effective. If it's feasible, just stepping out of one's comfort zone and intentionally practicing communication is perhaps the most effective method at improving this crucial life skill.

4. Self-awareness and empathy

Self-awareness and empathy are two sides of the same coin. Together, they constitute an understanding of the experiences, emotions, and thinking that take place both within oneself and in others. Researcher Phillipe Rochat described self-awareness as "the most fundamental issue in psychology" and for good reason. Little in life would not be improved by a thorough understanding of ones' own motivations. Research has shown that practicing mindfulness can promote self-awareness and empathy, critical skills that can combat drug addiction, reduce stress, and promote a stronger understanding of others. Many of the life skills mentioned in this list overlap, but none are quite as influential as self-awareness and empathy.

5. Coping with emotions and coping with stress

One of the few certainties in life is that things will go wrong. Learning how to handle these inevitable challenges with grace and resilience is essential. According to the American Psychological Association, there are ten methods for learning to promote resilience and bounce back from life's challenges:

  • Make connections with friends and family members.
  • Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems.
  • Accept that change is a part of living.
  • Develop realistic goals and work towards them regularly.
  • Take decisive actions.
  • Look for opportunities for self-discovery, especially when faced with hardship.
  • Nurture a positive view of yourself.
  • Keep things in perspective. When face-to-face with a significant challenge, it can be easy to lose the big picture.
  • Maintain a hopeful outlook.
  • Take care of yourself by paying attention to your needs and feelings and by staying in good shape.

These life skills are far-reaching and deeply impactful. Perhaps the best thing about improving any one of these skills is that they all feed into each other. Becoming a better communicator will both reduce the instances of stress and improve your ability to combat stress, critical thinking skills will help you with decision-making, cultivating empathy can make you a better communicator, and so on. With some intentional effort and focus, these five capabilities can be improved, improving your life in the process.

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Technology & Innovation
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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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