• Happiness can be tricky to define, but it all starts in the brain. We can turn to scientific peer-reviewed studies to learn the daily habits and mindsets most associated with wellbeing.
• Though routines are important, so is novelty; make efforts to mix things up now and again and try something new every day.
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Everyone wants to be happy, but how many people could honestly claim they are?
In the chapters that follow, we’ll be looking at what happiness is, how it works physiologically, and how we can use current scientific understanding of wellbeing to start creating a life that we love. Happiness starts in the brain, but that doesn’t mean it’s just a question of neuroscience. We’ll be exploring the question of happiness over the course of 40 practical, evidence-based techniques, covering daily happiness habits, joy-inducing environments, and short-term quick fixes for bad days. Finally, we’ll consider how we can pull everything together to create lasting lifestyle changes that genuinely make us feel good. Let’s dive in!
Have a routine – but not a strict one!
Picture the kind of person you imagine has their life together. They wake up at the same time every day, they have an orderly morning routine, and they have a fixed food, work, and exercise schedule that they move through predictably, every day. They’re probably quite productive… but are they happy?
It turns out that, although routine can be beneficial, you don’t want to get stuck in a rut. Research psychologist Catherine Hartley and her colleagues conducted a study with 132 participants, who were tracked for three or four months. Hartley wanted to see their general mental health state and overall mood, as well as examine what kind of daily routines they engaged in.
What the data revealed was pretty interesting: people who were able to do something novel every day tended to report more positive, happy emotions than those who just stuck to the same old, same old. The novelty didn’t have to be big – it could be something as simple as going to a new place or trying something different for lunch.
The team also tracked the participants via GPS and noticed that, on days when people moved around more and visited more locations, they were more likely to use words like “happy”, “relaxed” and “excited” to describe their mood that day.
Hartley wanted to understand more, so she had some of the participants undergo an MRI scan. Here, she found that the people who were regularly exposing themselves to novel situations actually had different brain function than those who didn’t. Their scans showed an increase in brain activity between the hippocampus and striatum – areas of the brain associated with experience processing and reward, respectively. The more diverse experiences, the greater the connectivity between these two brain regions and the greater the reported feelings of wellbeing.
The team published their findings in the journal Nature Neuroscience, concluding that there was a definite relationship between our daily environments, our behaviors, our brain activity, and our overall mood. Diversity of experience, they found, was positively correlated with improved wellbeing.
“Our results suggest that people feel happier when they have more variety in their daily routines — when they go to novel places and have a wider array of experiences,” Hartley claimed, and, since the research concluded just before worldwide Covid-19 lockdowns, many were interested in using the findings to maintain wellbeing despite being shut at home.
If “experiential diversity” means greater wellbeing, then it’s obvious that, if we want to be happier, we need a little novelty. What does that look like, day to day?
Well, it’s likely that each of us has different thresholds for what counts as “novel” – for some, new experiences can feel stressful or threatening, while others are major thrill-seekers and adrenaline junkies. What Hartley’s research suggests, however, is that just a little daily variation is enough to wake up certain areas of the brain. You don’t have to go on a grand adventure every day – just try something new here and there:
• Take a different route to work or, if you have a few minutes, explore that strange back street that you always walk past but never go down.
• Instead of getting your favorite dish at the restaurant you always go to, get something completely different or try another place entirely.
• Mix up the order of things you were already going to do that day; for example, change plans at the last minute and run some errands in town instead for a change of pace.
• Take a walk somewhere you haven’t been before and really absorb everything new and unexpected around you.
• Rummage in your closet and wear something you’ve forgotten about or a novel combination of items you haven’t tried before.
• Work in a different room, in a different chair, or even in the same room but oriented differently.
The reason novelty makes us happy is that, neurophysiologically, the sensation of novelty is closely connected to the sensation of reward. And in many ways, the experience of depression is not dissimilar from the feeling of being “stuck in a rut” and under-stimulated. Trying something new is a way to kick yourself out of that rut.
Think of novelty as giving your brain a little surprise, which produces a tiny dopamine kick and engages you with your environment. If you’re feeling a little low, pause and ask if you’re really just bored – have you been doing too much of that same thing? Time to try something new!
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