Novelty Acts

By Jancee Dunn

"Change is good" was my grandma's favorite expression—odd, considering she never left her Sun City retirement complex for 20 years.

We pay lip service to the joys of change, but most of us do love our routines. "Our natural tendency is to avoid uncertainty," says neuroscientist Gregory Berns, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University in Atlanta. "This kind of inertia is difficult to overcome."

But overcome you must, says Berns, if you want to be happier. A hyperinquisitive 39-year-old, he has been studying the pleasure centers of the brain for 15 years. In a 2000 experiment, Berns and his colleagues squirted fruit juice and water into volunteers' mouths, using patterns that were predictable or unpredictable, while measuring their brain activity using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging). He found that the pleasure centers of the subjects' brains responded much more strongly when the squirts were unexpected.

Based on those findings and others, Berns believes that novelty is the key to a satisfying life. To cultivate happiness (and keep those pleasure centers in your brain humming), he recommends constantly seeking new challenges and adventures—not necessarily skydiving, but stimulating experiences that make you feel vividly engaged: a vacation to Iceland, a rock climbing class, a social engagement you wouldn't ordinarily attend. "You can't just think yourself into happiness," says Berns: "You have to get up and do things you've never done before. And that entails risk. And risk entails anxiety. And even when those things don't turn out the way you hope, in the end you're more satisfied." Embracing uncertainty, he points out, also builds emotional resilience, "toughening you up for unexpected bad stuff that you have no control over."

When I met with Berns in his lab at Emory, he had me play a video-game-like device while he measured my brain waves with an MRI. In one test, I watched the screen passively as money was dropped into a bag. Then I used the controls to put the money in the bag myself. In the second case, my brain waves jumped because I actively made something happen.

Afterward, in his office, Berns produced a program of new challenges for me to tackle over the next month, loosely based on his book, Satisfaction. The first category involved putting my body to the test, trying a sport or physical activity I'd never done but wanted to, that I had some anxiety about. The next was intellectual (read a novel I've always found daunting or attend a lecture on a totally unfamiliar subject). The third was social ("make a connection with someone"), and the fourth was transcendent, which Berns defined as "going beyond the physical concreteness of daily life—through spiritual experiences, art, music, anything that creates a sense of being part of something more than yourself."

Back at home, I decided to try the social challenge first. I've lived in the same New York apartment building for three years and have never met my next-door neighbor. Three years. So I baked a batch of brownies and knocked on his door, my heart thudding. He looked suspicious while I explained it was high time we introduced ourselves, but then he invited me in for coffee and we chatted for the rest of the afternoon. Afterward I realized that meeting him (David, his name is) gave me a satisfied feeling: a comforting sense of community as well as the security of knowing that a friend was right next door.

My intellectual venture was forgoing TV for two weeks to read Great Expectations (actually staying up past my bedtime some nights to find out what happened to Pip). For the transcendent activity, I went to the American Museum of Natural History and visited the Butterfly room, despite a raging fear of the fluttery insects (it has something to do with their spindly legs). At the exhibition, I stood perfectly still as live butterflies gently alighted all over my body until, in a surreal moment, I was literally coated with them.

As for the physical novelty, I forced myself to ride a horse. Large and skittish isn't a good combo in my book, but I have always envied anyone who can ride. I spent a sleepless night before my morning appointment ("If it doesn't cause a bit of anxiety," says Berns," you're not doing anything"), and once I was in the saddle, my hands trembled for the whole, endless hour. So what if my instructor said that my elderly horse, Jack, "had one hoof in the grave"? I had never been on a horse in my life, and, for me, getting through that lesson was a major accomplishment. Once the abject terror subsided, I was elated.

The feeling of triumph stayed with me, too, mellowing nicely over the week into contentment. Berns cautions that his program isn't a "five steps to happiness" quick fix, but his theories have completely changed my mind-set. I find myself eagerly scanning the newspaper for stimulating new activities and striking up conversations with complete strangers. This way of thinking, I have a feeling, could get addictive.

Next: Why finding the positive in everything can make you more positive


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