Want to Feel More Alive? Here's What Science Says Is the Secret
One of the most profound things Alane Daugherty Ph.D. sees in her work is the benefit of taking a novel approach to change. When we seek newness, whether it's taking a different route to work or eating a fresh diet for better health, we expand our worlds, believes Daugherty , an author and the co-director of Cal Poly Pomona’s Mind and Heart Research Lab. This is a subject “near and dear” to Daugherty, who teaches about overcoming limiting behavior and embracing self-compassion because it’s a kinder, more sustainable approach to growth. “It pains me to see people shame themselves into change,” she says. “Instead, how can we embrace change in a whole new way? And novelty is one way.”
Underscoring Daugherty’s insight is the science: Neuroscientific research links why novelty has its benefits. The Sunday Paper spoke with Daugherty to learn more.
Why novelty is good for us?
The reasons it’s beneficial to seek a new approach to a problem may be obvious. It offers a fresh perspective. It gives you a jolt of energy. It makes sense. (If this hasn’t been working, try this.) But Daugherty says something happens on a deeper level.
According to neuroscience, we have two primary physiological drives: our fight or flight system, or as Daugherty calls it “our stress response system,” and our calm and connection system. When we approach making a change from a place of shame, guilt, or self-loathing (i.e. I hate my body so I need to eat better) we’re in our fight or flight system, the dominant hormone of which is cortisol. Cortisol may give us focus to make change for the short term, but once we start feeling better, the cortisol will drop, and then we're going to move away from lasting change, explains Daugherty. “Then we're just worse than we were to start.”
On the contrary, when we’re grounded in our calm and connection system, we’re more prone to see greater possibilities and opportunities. “You function at a whole different level,” says Daugherty. “It's called the broaden and build theory.” Where novelty comes into play is that dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked to motivation and positivity, is associated with newness, behavior control, and a positive outlook. “Dopamine is a helpful neurotransmitter for change,” says Daugherty. So when we approach a problem with a fresh, grounded, self-compassionate perspective, we’re more likely to feel good and to make a lasting change. “Also, when you're novel in your approach to specific tasks, that will produce more dopamine.”
How to seek out novelty in our every day?
When Daugherty speaks of seeking newness to encourage change, she's referring to usually accessible steps to implement in our everyday routines. So how do we start? First by listening to our guts. “I believe in an embodied approach,” says Daugherty. “This will be different for everybody, but it’s about if it feels—in a deep sense—like an intuitive yes.”
To find this intuitive “yes," ask yourself: How can I do this differently? Daugherty suggests considering the following prompts:
· Does it feel new?
· Does it feel expansive?
· Does it feel different?
We can answer these questions in small steps. For instance, if you’re looking to feel better about your body, what is a shift to your diet that you can make? If you’re bored being stuck in traffic, have you considered taking a new route to work? If you love listening to apps, Daugherty suggests downloading a few new ones to gain a fresh perspective. “It’s about breaking familiar routines and it’s about being creative,” she says. By making a small tweak from a place of seeking novelty, we get that dopamine hit that energizes us and keeps us motivated. “Again, it doesn’t have to be a huge change. It's about breaking the familiarity so it feels new.”
The magic of small steps.
The other huge—and motivating—finding from neuroscience is how small changes go a long way. Each shift builds upon the next, resulting in grander changes. “I love the analogy of driving the car down the road at night,” says Daugherty. “All you can see is 200 feet in front of it with the headlights, but those 200 feet are always enough.”
By taking a few small and different steps, we stimulate those novelty neural networks in our brain, which lead us to continue down that positive path toward beneficial, lasting change.
Dr. Alane Daugherty is a writer, speaker, and professor. She is the author of several books including Unstressed: How Somatic Awareness Can Transform Your Body's Stress Response and Build Emotional Resilience, as well as the audio series De-stress with Dr. Alane. Her work with Cal Poly Pomona’s Mind and Heart Lab focuses on outreach through workshops and seminars, directing the psychophysiology lab, and the operations of the de-stress lounge. Learn more at mindandheartlab.com.
Question from the Editor: What is one change you'd like to make today? How can you approach that differently? We'd love to know in the conversation below!