New and diverse experiences make people the happiest, new research shows.
People living in New York and Miami, who were tracked over months, felt more positive emotions when they spent more time in locations that were novel to them.
The boost to happiness can be seen in increased brain activity in regions critical to novelty and reward.
Even relatively small changes — like walking around the block or taking a different route to the store — may have beneficial effects.
Dr Catherine Hartley, study co-author, said:
“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.
The opposite is also likely true: positive feelings may drive people to seek out these rewarding experiences more frequently.”
For the study, people in New York and Miami had their emotions and movements tracked over 3-4 months.
The results showed that when people were in new and different places on the same day, they were more likely to report feeling happy, strong, relaxed or excited.
Dr Aaron Heller, the study’s first author, said:
“Collectively, these findings show the beneficial consequences of environmental enrichment across species, demonstrating a connection between real-world exposure to fresh and varied experiences and increases in positive emotions.”
Brain scans on a subset of these people showed a strong link between novelty and a rewarding feeling.
Some people’s brains are particularly sensitive to diverse experiences and it gives them a greater boost.
In these people there are stronger links between parts of the brain important for feeling good and for processing reward and novelty.
Dr Hartley said:
“These results suggest a reciprocal link between the novel and diverse experiences we have during our daily exploration of our physical environments and our subjective sense of well-being.”
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
The study was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience (Heller et al., 2020).