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How to Design a Psychologically Ideal Life: The Case for Novelty

A feeling of stagnation in your social relationships, work, and quality of life is normal, especially over the past year. COVID-19 frustrated our basic human need for novelty-variety.  There is evidence that satisfying the need for novelty is essential to long-term well-being. Discover how and when an injection of novelty can improve life satisfaction, strength, and wisdom. 

Reality television contestants on Survivor, The Amazing Race, and Naked and Afraid often fail because of unmet physiological needs. Hunger. Sleep. Thirst. Shelter. My daughters are known to function at a 31% intellectual deficit after three hours without Takis chips. Since Abraham Maslow’s 1954 book Motivation and Personality, psychologists are in agreement about what is required for a person to physically function in daily life.

There has been less agreement on whether people possess psychological needs that must be satisfied to function optimally. That is, until Self-Determination Theory emerged in 1985, explaining what psychological nutrients a person requires to achieve well-being, and what social environments support or hinder learning, performance, and cognitive functioning.

Scientific evidence for the importance of satisfying three basic psychological needs is overwhelming. Basic universal needs include a feeling of autonomy, belonging, and competence – the ABC’s of human motivation.

A Primer on the Three Universal Psychological Needs

If we wanted to predict whether someone is going to have an amazing day – full of positive emotions and vitality, minimal negative emotions, and devoid of mental health problems – look no further than whether psychological needs are satisfied.

Feeling autonomous refers to a sense of volition over one’s behavior. In trying to acquire autonomy, we seek physical and psychological freedom to act, think, and create. Given freedom to think and choose, people are more passionate about their work, productive, and creative. When in a controlling environment, autonomy needs are thwarted.

Feeling a sense of belonging refers to the development of deep, meaningful connections with other people. In trying to acquire belonging, we prefer social relationship partners who are nurturing and supportive as opposed to those who make us feel disrespected and lonely. When in cold, neglectful environments, the need for belonging is thwarted.

Feeling competent refers to the belief that one can be effective at challenging tasks, and a sense of mastery is developing.  In trying to acquire competence, we seek opportunities to use our knowledge and skills through education, experimentation, and perseverance. When made to feel unintelligent, incapable, or dehumanized, the need for competence is thwarted.

Fulfilling these needs creates the conditions for well-being and optimal performance. What has been left out of the conversation is a fourth neglected psychological need.

A Scientific Case for the Need for Novelty

Psychologically, humans function best when there is sufficient novelty and variety in their lives. No matter how satisfying, there are only so many times we can watch Inception by Christopher Nolan, read Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, eat Seafood Fra Diavolo, and converse with neighbors about cleaning grout. In the absence of novelty, our personal growth ceases. Our identity cannot expand without access to new experiences and information. We gain wisdom by viewing situations from multiple perspectives. We learn about ourselves by testing what works and doesn’t work in different situations.

One feature that holds us back from everlasting happiness is the hedonic treadmill. Once we acquire an experience, we make sense of it, integrate it into our lives, and as a result, the emotional effects tend to be temporary. It’s why the most creative, passionate poetry tends to peak early, as 20-somethings experience heart stirrings for the first time. Only about a third of married adults report being “intensely in love.” It’s why buying an expensive Vantablack BMW with a paint coating that absorbs 99.96% of visible light loses its magic as soon as you pick up dust and dirt, or sear leg flesh in excruciatingly hot seats.  We experience a brief mood boost in response to a positive event and a short time later, return to prior patterns of thinking, feeling, and behavior. A hedonic treadmill is similar to a rubber band snapping and then reverting back to its original shape. We bend out of shape from positive and negative, events, but eventually return to our baseline, typical level of happiness.

Adaptation is a beautiful evolutionary mechanism when it comes to bouncing back from rejection, loss and failure. But can we step off the hedonic treadmill and build on initial mood boosts from positive events? How do we increase and sustain high levels of well-being?

Imagine a well-being strategy to increase kindness. If you intentionally hold a shopping mall door for 67 pedestrians per day, do not expect more than a short-lived mood boost. You will adapt quickly to the pleasure of hearing “thank you.” You might resent pedestrians who avoid eye contact. As the arms tire, the act might feel like a chore. What if you injected some novelty-variety? On Tuesdays you honed in on people that on the superficial surface are different in age, skin color, fashion style, or personality? On Thursdays, you tried to be kinder to animals? On Sundays, you experimented with agreeable discussions with people holding opposing political beliefs?

Imagine a well-being strategy to increase gratitude. What if instead of only expressing appreciation to close friends and family, you extended these sentiments to neglected benefits? Do you have a full set of teeth and gums that don’t leave a trail of blood from the sink? Do healthy limbs allow you to climb stairs and cuddle shaggy dogs? Does a fully functioning refrigerator allow for a morning bowl of yogurt and a chilled glass of sake before sunset? Don’t wait for the second law of thermodynamics when body parts and machines break down, extend a sense of gratitude to a variety of underappreciated gifts.

The most effective happiness-enhancing activities are those injected with novelty and variety. Novelty prevents humans from experiencing inertia. By varying our activities and directing our attention to mysteries and surprising pleasures, it is harder to psychologically adapt to existing circumstances. Our sense of self expands from novel experiences and social encounters. We don’t just benefit from novelty, we need it.

Let’s consider a test of whether the need for novelty qualifies as a psychological need or a luxury.

  1. Does satisfaction of this need contribute to our psychological growth and well-being? Yes, says scientists.
  2. Does this need reflect a product of human evolution, an adaptive advantage acquired over the course of hundreds of generations? Yes, says scientists.
  3. Is this need distinct from the other three psychological needs of autonomy, belonging, and competence? Yes, says scientists and others concur with additional evidence.
  4. Is the satisfaction of this need relevant to the well-being of the human race – across cultures, countries, and demographics? Scientists lean toward yes.

Knowing novelty-variety is an essential nutrient for human beings, we can construct habits that ensure a proper daily dose. We can design supportive social environments.

The Satisfaction of Satisfying the Need for Novelty

In 2001, researchers asked people to rate the “single most personally satisfying event” that they experienced over the past month. From these open-ended responses, a top 10 list emerged. The need for “new, pleasurable sensations and activities” appeared in the top five.

  1. Self-esteem boost
  2. Sense of belonging
  3. Sense of autonomy
  4. Sense of competence
  5. New, pleasurable sensations and activities
  6. Feeling physically fit and comfortable in one’s body
  7. Sense of deeper meaning and/or understanding
  8. Feeling secure
  9. Feeling popular and/or influential
  10. Acquisition of money and luxury

And when the researchers broadened the time frame over a five-month period, the single most personally satisfying event involved novelty. Even more illustrative, adults experiencing the most novelty felt more frequent positive emotions and infrequent negative emotions. In case you are wondering whether this is an American thing, know that these findings replicated in South Korea.

There is a widely accepted view that happiness is stable and cannot be elevated in a meaningful way. New research shows that changes can raise happiness but this depends on the amount of novelty/variety/curiosity stimulated. We need breaks from routines. What if we entered conversations with people holding different opinions than us? What if we we were willing to revise our beliefs upon uploading credible, contradictory information? What if we tried new athletic activities, traversed new hiking trails, explored new musical genres, and experimented with new writing styles? How can we create systems that value revised habits and thinking? We must recognize and respond to the need for novelty. Exploration is our human birthright. Our evolution as individuals, groups, and cultures has always depended on exploration. This is especially true after being locked down for months with the same surrounding cast of characters and objects during the land of COVID-19.

Thankfully, we can intentionally direct attention to what is novel in a particular moment. Each interaction with someone is different from any other in terms of what is said and felt. We can wake up to how the sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and touch of the external world converge in unique ways. An astute participant-observer satisfies their need for novelty.

Feeling a sense of novelty reflects ample opportunity to be curious, explore, and discover new information and experiences. There is an appreciation of both variety and alternative perspectives. In trying to acquire novelty, we notice and seek out deviations from everyday routines. The need for novelty is thwarted when there are barriers to asking questions, experimenting with new behaviors, and limited interactions with people who think and act differently.

Understand psychological needs: fulfilling them contributes to optimal growth and well-being. Psychological needs extend beyond the individual. We must ask whether existing social environments help or hinder quests to satisfy needs. Knowing the value of curious, compassionate, courageous leaders, let’s create cultures where feelings of autonomy, belonging, competence, and a sense of novelty are regularly satisfied.

Provocation

How can you get exposure to a greater amount of novelty-variety? Generate a plan for breaking free from the same activities, conversation topics, information sources, and perspectives. Spend more time exploring uncertain terrain and doing something unpredictable. What are you going to do differently today? How are you going to respond to people differently today?

How will you provide feedback to other people on whether they support basic needs? Start with a brutally honest assessment of who regularly fosters growth and well-being, and who is a source of frustration. Let others know what you need to be your best, produce your best, and relish the journey. Devote less time and energy toward people disinterested in your psychological needs. Make sure you reciprocate by asking how you can facilitate other’s needs. If you are a leader or have dependents, ask each day – what can I do to facilitate their sense of autonomy, belonging, competence, and novelty? Curate characters who will help in your own quest while helping others reach their potential.

Know someone who is a curious explorer?
Share these Provoked ideas with them!

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is Professor of Psychology and leads The Well-Being Laboratory at George Mason University. His latest book, available for pre-order, is The Art of Insubordination: How to Dissent and Defy Effectively.