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Embracing Novelty: The Key to a Richer, Happier Life

Do you actively go looking for new experiences, or do you stick with the tried and true? While it can be tempting to play it safe and go with what you know, embracing novelty in your life can boost your happiness and wellbeing and support your brain health

Your life gets richer the more open you are to new ideas, people, places and experiences. Getting out of your comfort zone and your usual routines will help you grow and enjoy your one precious life more fully.

Boosting your wellbeing

Why are fun and novel experiences so good for you? Doing things that are fun and novel spark your brain in unique ways. Novelty and pleasure activate the reward centre in your brain, releasing dopamine, one of your feel-good hormones. Dopamine improves your mood and motivation, while also offsetting your stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. Life can get stressful and monotonous at times, but novelty and fun can help you break out of those ruts, allowing you to feel more fully alive, energised and optimistic.

Last year when I finished up with a company I’d been working for, I really needed some time out to recharge. One of my favourite ways to do this is to take a solo trip away for a few nights. The problem was, I was exhausted. I was tempted to go back to a place I’d been before, simply because it seemed easier. However, I knew how important novelty was to enjoyment and wellbeing, so instead I chose to go somewhere entirely new.

It took a lot more research and time, but it ended up being a great decision. While I was there, I discovered new beaches, gorgeous little cafés and lovely walks, and stayed in accommodation with the most breathtaking views. Each day I was getting dopamine boosts and my brain was buzzing in all the good ways. I felt inspired and recharged by the break and by the change in my environment.

When you feel overwhelmed, tired or stressed, it’s tempting to go with what you know, but seeking newness provides that spark of joy, resets your mood, lowers your stress levels and gives you a new perspective which can help you be more resilient.

Building a healthier brain

Your brain needs new experiences to grow. New experiences create richer neural networks and create more cognitive reserve, which is an essential part of ageing well. Professor of neuropsychology at Columbia University Dr Yaakov Stern explains that “People develop a reserve of thinking abilities during their lives, and this protects them against losses that can occur through ageing and disease.”

New experiences can also reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Dr Stern says, “Individuals who lead mentally stimulating lives, through education, occupation and leisure activities, have reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Studies suggest that they have 35–40 per cent less risk of manifesting the disease.”

Enhancing your relationships

By doing new things like travelling, reading books, watching documentaries, speaking to strangers, being curious and asking more questions, you broaden your experiences. As you broaden your experiences and understanding of others, you also broaden your mind and your ability to empathise. Building your empathy makes it easier to connect, be kind, problem-solve and support the people in your life, whether that’s in your personal life or at work.

Novelty can also help you keep the spark of passion alive in your relationships. Neuroscientist Dr Lucy L Brown and biological anthropologist Dr Helen Fisher explain in their blog post “How does novelty rekindle love?” that “Novelty triggers the same areas of the brain as the early stages of romance, causing a rush of neurotransmitters. Sharing a new, adrenaline-producing activity with your long-term partner helps to jump-start those feelings of passion that you thought were gone. In tandem with the deeper bonds that have developed over time, that rush of brain chemicals can be just what you need to rekindle a feeling of romantic love as well as companionate love.”

Personal development

While there are many health and relational benefits associated with doing new things, it’s not always easy to embrace the unknown. At the heart of new experiences is the fear of what might happen, of looking silly or of being disappointed. These fears can cause you to fall back on what feels safe, known and comfortable. The problem is, that when you stop being open, curious and going on adventures you also stop learning. You stop growing and evolving as a person. You don’t get to fully know yourself and what you like and don’t like, and what you’re capable of achieving.

While you don’t need to embrace big novel adventures like an overseas trip, moving interstate or changing jobs, you can challenge yourself in small ways each day, week and month. You can start small with trying a new café, picking a new meal off a menu, trying a new bushwalking track or booking a weekend away some place you haven’t been before.

It can be helpful to remind yourself that your current favourite things such as people, foods, places and experiences were all new to you at one stage. It was only because you had the courage to try something new and put yourself out into the world that you had those experiences which now form such an important part of your life. Don’t let fear of the unknown stop you from enjoying your life more fully.

It’s also easy to get caught up feeling overly responsible and overwhelmed by life and your obligations. Do you find it hard to loosen up and have fun? Have you become too serious and weighed down? It’s not easy to break free from the belief that you must always be working hard to get ahead. However, the science shows that in order to truly thrive, our brain and body need time to rest, switch off and have fun. Use a mindset reframe, such as “Rest, fun and new experiences will allow me to feel and be my best” to rewire your brain to feel better about embracing the lighter side of life.

Thinking differently at work

It’s not just in your personal life that novelty can be beneficial. You can also introduce more novelty and fun into how you approach your work. Just because things have been done a certain way for years doesn’t mean there isn’t a better way moving forward. In fact, if you’ve been doing things the same way in your business or team for a while, it might be time to mix it up. By challenging yourself to think differently at work and be more playful, you can boost your team dynamic, productivity, wellbeing and innovative problem-solving skills.

Tips to bring novelty into your work

  • Take your brainstorming sessions out of your office and into a café or park or try a walking meeting.
  • Incorporate creative activities into meetings to allow for new ways of thinking.
  • Organise social events that are novel and challenging and that create meaningful new memories within your team.
  • Invest in learning and development opportunities.
  • Get inspired by different industries and their innovative approaches.
  • Dream big and consider what you would do if resources were unlimited, then challenge yourself to find one small way to incorporate this vision now.
  • Brainstorm three ways to make processes more efficient, bringing innovation into how you work

Laughter yoga

When it comes to embracing the lighter side of life, laughter yoga is a powerful (and fun) way to bring more novelty and joy into your life. I sat down with Jess Brain of The Brain Bar, who is a brain coach and laughter yoga instructor in New York, to chat about the power of laughter on brain health and wellbeing.

What is laughter yoga?

Laughter yoga involves gentle movement, breathing exercises and laughter exercises. Initially we fake-laugh, but this eventually leads to genuine contagious laughter. Laughter yoga is not about being funny or telling jokes. You don’t even need to feel happy to enjoy it; you just need to show up with an open mind and a playful heart.
What happens in the brain when we laugh and experience novel things?

The brain is constantly scanning the horizon for anything that is novel and new. The mind is ever curious, but also needs to be alert for any potential threat and therefore changes in the environment. Laughter and novelty have the capacity to activate the full length of the hippocampus (the memory and learning centre of the brain) and this encourages neurogenesis (the brain’s ability to generate new neurons).

Laughter is actually a mindfulness practice as it doesn’t involve any cognitive thought. It bypasses the reticular activating system in the brain, which normally acts as a brake pedal, and therefore allows us to feel such a strong sense of joy, peace and calm.

Laughter has multiple science-backed benefits, not only for our mood but also our overall health: immunity, energy and healing. This healing can be emotional, mental or physical, and that’s the brilliance of laughter. Sadly, laughter is not something we can always generate on our own. We laugh mostly when we are with others, when we feel safe and when something is silly or bizarre.

Why is laughter yoga so good for us?

The brain can’t tell the difference between what is real and what is simulated — that’s why we have to feed it information. When we are laughing, we are telling our brain and our body we are happy. By laughing for 15 minutes or more, we begin to reap all the health benefits. Extended laughter causes our brains to rev up the production of our happy neurochemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, acetylcholine and endorphins, which increases our mood and energy.

On top of that laughter reduces cortisol, so we also feel relaxed yet energised. These days laughter yoga is being referred to as “energy medicine” and it’s easy to see why. Laughter also has the ability to make us more mentally, emotionally and physically resilient.

How did you get into laughter yoga?

In 2010 I visited India and saw a group of kids at an orphanage practising laughter yoga on the banks of the Ganges. It was so heartwarming to watch them and I felt the joy resonating from them. I was curious to learn more. In 2019 I completed my laughter yoga leader training in New York, and then when the pandemic hit, I thought, “Now seems like a good time to start a laughter club!”

What positive things has laughter yoga done for you?

Starting my laughter club during the pandemic was a saving grace. It allowed me to stay connected and feel positive, and it gave me a space to share my brain health tips. Personally, I’ve noticed I laugh a lot more now and I believe this is because I’ve wired my brain to laugh at life.

Laughter also has this unique ability to bring us closer, bridge our differences and remind us that we are not all that dissimilar. Laughter’s playfulness reminds us not to take life so seriously.

12 tips to embrace novelty

  1. Mix up your routine: go to work early and have a coffee and journal, stay back late and try a new bar with a friend, eat a “reverse dinner” and have dessert before your main meal.
  2. Make something new: a recipe, painting, garden, poem etc.
  3. Read a new book or watch a movie that’s outside your usual  genre.
  4. Travel and go on vacation some place new.
  5. Order something new from a menu
  6. Challenge yourself with a new hobby.
  7. Explore a new suburb.
  8. Listen to new music.
  9. Go for a walk via a new track or drive home a different way.
  10. Have a weekend with no plans and be spontaneous.
  11. Try something that takes you out of your comfort zone, like laughter yoga.
  12. Walk mindfully on the same path, noticing small changes in your environment.

It’s not always comfortable to try new things and get out of your comfort zone, but there’s a lot to be gained from embracing the lighter side of life. Challenging yourself in both small and big ways to seek out the new will keep your brain sparking, your feel-good hormones flowing and your brain healthy and happy for many years to come. What is one new experience you can create today.

Article Featured in WellBeing 205

Jessica Lee

Jessica Lee

Jessica Lee is a speaker, writer and business consultant. She is the owner of The Spark Effect and is passionate about sharing neuroscience-based strategies to teach corporate teams and businesses how to better use their brains to reduce overwhelm and stress, while boosting productivity, creative problem solving, wellbeing and communication. Get in touch with Jessica at jessica@thesparkeffect.com.au, on +61 424 358 334 or via thesparkeffect.com.au.

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