Experience is important

How even small changes can make us happier

By Martin Lewicki | February 05, 2019, 2:03 p.m.

The older we get, the more we fall into routines, both in everyday life and at work. It gives us a sense of security and control and therefore something we long for. Paradoxically, however, this leads to dissatisfaction. Only one thing helps: break out of old habits and try out new things. A psychologist explains why it's important and how to do it.

“Humans are creatures of habit” says a saying. And indeed: in the course of our lives we collect countless experiences and those that we find good we try to repeat. The older we get, the greater our wealth of experience. From this we then filter out the best experiences and know pretty much what we like and what we don't. In this way, we can often assess whether we will like it before a new experience.

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Going back to the tried and tested can make you unhappy

All of this leads to the fact that we construct a life based on past experiences and assumptions about new experiences. If we want to avoid disappointments and bad experiences, we prefer to use the tried and tested.

And finally we develop routines from this: We always buy the same food because we like it best. Always go to the same restaurants because we know what to expect there. Always take the same route to work because it is the fastest. Travel to our favorite countries because we know each other well and feel comfortable there. And prefer to end up at home on the couch in the evening, because that's where it's most comfortable.

When our brain no longer perceives the processes as stimulating

In principle, there is nothing to be said against routines: They make our lives easier, make decisions for us and give us a feeling of security and control. Paradoxically, these very routines can make us unhappy after a while. Because our brain gets used to the processes and no longer perceives them as stimulating.

What many increasingly lose in the course of adult life is very important for our satisfaction: namely the child's curiosity and the associated gathering of new experiences. When we gain experience and learn new things, we release both the happiness hormone dopamine and the stress hormone cortisol, explains US neuroscientist Gregory Berns in his book "Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment" to find true fulfillment ”.

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We need experiences that challenge us, but not overwhelm us

According to Berns, we experience a state of satisfaction when we have a new experience that challenges us to a certain extent. As long as we are in control and experience does not overwhelm us, the release of cortisol is not harmful either. It is important to have an experience that corresponds to our personal level of performance.

Berns describes the spectrum of these stimulating experiences as very broad. This includes, for example, solving crossword puzzles as well as jokes and humor, provided we can decipher them and thus have an aha moment. But even when we go to the limits of our physical performance in sports or have new sexual experiences, the feeling of satisfaction arises.

In summary, in his book, Berns advises you to continuously develop yourself, to leave your personal comfort zones and to face new challenges in order to be permanently satisfied. Actually, very simple tips that only require some effort - if it weren't for these stubborn routines.

Growth needs support our development

We wanted to know more about it and spoke to the psychologist and book author Dr. Daniela Blickhan. She is herself a teaching trainer and coach in positive psychology - a scientific research area that deals with a successful life - and heads the Inntal Institute, which specializes in this area. She is also the chair of the German-speaking umbrella association for positive psychology, which aims to make research findings usable for people in German-speaking countries.

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Why does our striving for security and routines in professional and private life make us unhappy at some point when we always have the same commute, do the same tasks or do the same things with our partner?

Dr. Daniela Blickhan: “When it comes to our needs, ie what we need to be happy, we can differentiate between deficit needs and growth needs: hunger and thirst are deficit needs, for example. As long as these are active, we want to satisfy them, but when hunger and thirst are satisfied, they take a back seat. More food doesn't make us happier. It's quite different with growth needs: we can always need more of them, because that supports our development. The need for growth includes, for example, the experience of closeness and connectedness, the feeling of competence and effectiveness in what I do, or the sense of purpose.

Routine gives you security. And security is not a need for growth, but a need for deficit. It is only effective as long as it is activated, i.e. when we feel insecure. "

Set in motion an upward spiral

What happens in the brain when we have new positive experiences?

Blickhan: “Our brain likes new things, especially when it is associated with positive emotions. Then dopamine, the "anticipation hormone", is released. And that in turn leads to a greater willingness to try out and explore new things. Our motivation grows by itself and an upward spiral starts. "

Do new negative experiences, for example when we fail at something, also have something good for themselves, or should we avoid them?

Blickhan: “That depends entirely on how we rate this experience. Failure is normal. For example, young children fail hundreds of times before they learn to walk. The crucial question for us adults is how we rate failure. Is it a failure that we devalue and judge ourselves for? 'You really could have done better now! What a stupid mistake - everyone else can do it, but you can't get it right. ‘This is something like our inner dialogue in this case and then it naturally leads to negative feelings and demotivation.

See failure as an opportunity to learn from it

On the other hand, if we see our failure as an opportunity to learn something from it in order to do better next time, it is quite different. Then the failure turns into a learning success and our brains react differently. Not quite as positive as with the anticipation, but much more positive than when I judge myself for failure. "

In principle, it sounds good that new things make you happy, but in everyday life it is often not the case: If I try a new food that I don't like, I am disappointed at first because of the money thrown out. If I choose a different route to work, I get stuck in a traffic jam and then arrive late at the office, I'm stressed. In many cases you wish you had chosen the usual “good”. What is the best way to proceed if you want to break out of your routines without "failing" immediately?

Blickhan: “Here, too, the evaluation is crucial, and above all the filter used. Do I only see the experience in the category, black or white ‘? Or am I able to perceive nuances? The new food may not taste as great as hoped, but the taste is interesting. The new route may take longer because I get stuck in a traffic jam, but suddenly I see a new place that I want to try out in the evening. Or I discover an interesting shop that makes me curious.

Whoever does the same thing over and over again uses their brain less

We are talking about reframing, i.e. internal reevaluating. If I only do the same thing over and over, then I will always have the same experiences. And as a result, my motivation withers and I use my brain much less than I could. If I dare to try new things and am curious about how I feel about it, I can learn and find something in all experiences that will make me smarter. And if in a special case I decide that I definitely never want to try it again, then I have learned something from it and am a little bit smarter! "

So should we try to keep childish curiosity?

Blickhan: “Yes, we definitely should. Psychology speaks of "openness to new experiences" as a personality trait that sets people apart. We were all curious as kids. As adults, however, we differ in our willingness to try new things, because that always means a little risk. But just as we have forgotten how to be curious like a small child, we can learn it again. To do this, we need opportunities that we enjoy - on vacation, for example, many of us are a lot more curious and eager to experiment than at home - and that works best with the support of loved ones around us. Trying out new things together is twice as much fun! "

Isn't it also a question of type? Shouldn't one generally advise everyone to gain new experience, because many are quite happy in their routines after all?

Blickhan: “It's a question of dosage. We humans differ in the amount of new things that we find exciting - or that overwhelm us. That is why there cannot be one piece of advice that applies to all people.

On the other hand, it is the case that we get used to the familiar in such a way that it is experienced less pleasantly. Think about your last vacation: you thought the food buffet was great on the first day, and on the second and third days too. But then it became increasingly familiar to you and after a week you began to secretly look forward to dinner at home again. The new had lost its appeal as we got used to it, and with it the initially positive emotions faded. The technical term for this is hedonistic adaptation ‘. My grandma would have said: 'You get used to good things quickly ‘."

Small changes are enough

Are even small changes in everyday life enough to stimulate our brain: a new song, a new type of bread for breakfast, new exercises in the gym? Or should it be special experiences?

Blickhan: “Small changes are enough if we are aware of them. If we are only on the 'autopilot', then it has to be a world-shattering change for it to reach us. But if we learn to go through our day with open eyes and ears, then very small new aspects can trigger big changes in our experience. Then we set our antennas to receive. "

Do experiences actually make us happier than material goods? Would you rather try a new sport instead of buying something new?

Blickhan: “New experiences definitely make us happier than material achievements, because additional areas in our brain and, above all, our emotions are involved. New experiences that we enjoy together with other people make us happiest, because then our positive feelings can mutually reinforce each other and the feeling of togetherness and solidarity also grows. "

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