Better Living

Our Essential Need for Novelty

As adults we can become caught by our responsibilities and slowly lose the zest for life
BY Mollie Donghia TIMEJune 26, 2022 PRINT

Have you ever wondered why “out of the ordinary” days stick with you the most? Maybe it was the day you met a lifelong friend, the moment you set your eyes on a beautiful landscape in a new country, or the birth of a child.

When we enjoy novel experiences such as these, research shows that our brains get a rush of dopamine, which lights up our pleasure center and makes us feel happy.

It’s also true that humans thrive on predictable routines. Habit formation is key to maintaining long-term physical and mental health.

Now that I’ve experienced the highlights of my college years, a decade of marriage, and the joys of having children, I realize that it’s habits and not novelty that lay the foundation of a good life.

But a life that’s all structure and routine without enough wonder and novelty isn’t complete, either. It’s by maintaining our childlike passion into adulthood that we can experience the fullest life possible.

So, knowing that both healthy habits and novelty are key elements to a thriving life, how do we balance the two? How do we have maturity and focus, while still allowing for novelty-seeking experiences that add zest to life?

The Struggle of Balancing Maturity and Novelty

Our need for excitement and novelty is at its highest when we’re children and adolescents. Researchers found that between the ages of 20 and 60, the desire for novelty drops by about half.

When you reach adulthood, long days of productivity demand most of your time. Hobbies you once enjoyed are seldom done. There’s less free time to be creative and explore new ideas.

Our culture praises productivity and effectiveness. We work hard and reap the benefits.

Curiosity and daydreaming about new ideas can also be seen as irresponsible, because they may cause you to veer off the path of immediate productivity.

Personally, I’ve worked full-time in a public school and now stay home to raise and homeschool my children. Both are jobs that demand focused energy and leave little time for pursuing personal creative outlets.

But when I’m solely focused on productivity and checking everything off my to-do list, I lose sight of what brings the most enjoyment to my days. Allowing time for curiosity and creativity encourages me to stay motivated to do the hard work that the season brings.

I believe the key here is to not let the pendulum swing too far in either direction, but have a healthy balance of focused work and creative exploration.

For me, that means balancing productive, task-driven work with activities that are immediately rewarding, such as allowing more time for adventures with my kids, reading a good book just for fun, or allowing myself to be creative in the kitchen.

When the Balance Is Off

Maturity and novelty both play important roles in our well-being. When life is all about being productive and following routines, we can become robotic and lose the zest in life that motivates and excites us. But when life is all about novelty-seeking experiences, there’s often no clear structure or direction.

If we’re not careful, we can end up too far on one end of the spectrum, leading to an unbalanced life.

On the one end, a neophiliac is someone who craves novelty. A healthy dose of novelty and curiosity is great for our well-being, but too much can lead to dependency. Gambling, social media use, and especially drugs and alcohol are examples of novelty-seeking that can easily become habit-forming.

At the other end, where life is all about structure and routine, our productivity mindset can be hard to break free from. We can become creatures of habit, where life may lose its luster and days become filled with the same old routines—causing a mundane outlook on life.

The good life is when we can combine mature focus with opportunities to pursue novelty.

Finding a Healthy Balance

In order to live a flourishing life filled with passion and focus, you need to find a balance between novelty and maturity. Each person will have to find their own place on the spectrum.

Take some time to think about the season you’re in. Do you have a tendency to work too much and be restricted by your daily routine? Do you gravitate toward creative pursuits, but then lack the structure of getting things done?

Whatever this looks like for you, aim to find a balance by allowing time for mature focus as well as enjoyable experiences that add zest to life.

Ways to Add Novelty and Passion to Your Life

Many adults, even if they still struggle with it, know the importance of developing habits and adding structure to their days. It’s more common for me to come across adults who aren’t carving out enough space to add the novelty that came so much more easily in the first two decades of life. If that resonates with you, here are some tips that have been useful to me:

Start by turning off your screens. Screens can be that hit of dopamine our brains desire, but usually don’t fulfill us long-term.

Explore a new area. One of our favorite things to do for a day trip or vacation is to explore a new area. Familiar sights are comforting and enjoyable, but consider traveling to a town or city that you’ve never been to.

Try a new food. Our taste buds become accustomed to the same foods because we eat what we enjoy. Consider branching out and trying a new ethnicity of cuisine. Find a restaurant in your town or explore recipes online. This is one of my favorite ways to add variety to my diet.

Allow yourself to reminisce. Reminiscing on the past is healthy when we can mentally relive nostalgic experiences. Look back through old photo books, tell your children a story about when you were their age, or allow yourself to daydream back through the decades.

Spend time with your children or grandchildren. Children bring innocent fun with them wherever they go. Get down on their level, play a game, splash in a nearby creek, go on a nature walk, and observe everything that intrigues them. A personal favorite of ours is to gather all the pillows and blankets and build a giant fort.

Take a long, slow walk. Exercising and strenuous walking is great, but when we slow down and walk at a more gentle pace, we’re more likely to notice our surroundings. Take a leisurely walk in the woods. Listen to the sounds. Smell the air.

Mollie (and her husband, Mike) blog at This Evergreen Home where they share their experience with living simply, intentionally, and relationally in this modern world. You can follow along by subscribing to their twice-weekly newsletter.
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