Last month, I challenged myself to try something new every day for 30 days. I started this challenge because I know from experience that I tend to be happier when I am open to new experiences. And doing it paid off! I felt so engaged and fulfilled while the challenge was taking place.
I wanted to know why, though. What evidence exists to explain why trying new things is good for me?
The Science of Trying New Things
One major benefit of trying new things hinges on the keyword of “neuroplasticity.”
The word “neuroplasticity” combines the root “neuro” meaning relating to the nervous system (in this case, the brain) and the word “plasticity”, which in this case means “capacity for being molded or altered” according the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
You may have heard that your brain changes when you learn new information. That is exactly the phenomenon that neuroplasticity is describing. When we provide our minds with new information, we create or strengthen pathways in our brain. If we then reinforce that new information with similar experiences, we strengthen those pathways even more (Wingeier, 2018). This can improve your ability to complete a task successfully or can increase the automaticity for that task (like how you don’t have to think too hard while you’re driving once you’ve been doing it for a few years) (Stevens, 2019).
When I was having new experiences, I was learning new things and making connections to other things that I had done before. Therefore, I was creating and reinforcing neuropathways, which is awesome!
This challenge was not optimized to encourage the most neuroplasticity (but with some adaptations, I’m sure it could be!). Any neuropathways that I built while learning German, for example, likely will not get used with any regularity and may even disappear. For learning’s sake, I would have been better off practicing French or Spanish, two languages that I encounter more frequently and for which I have a better baseline of knowledge. But I wanted to try learning German, guys! I wanted the experience!
This leads to the second benefit of trying new things: we most often remember experiences pleasantly, and having pleasant experiences is a good thing (“Health and Happiness”, 2007). In fact, studies find over and over again that, absent depression, about half of our past experiences are viewed pleasantly while only about a quarter are viewed unpleasantly (Walker, Skowronski, & Thompson, 2003).
Trying new things means gaining new experiences–new experiences that will likely be pleasant ones. And, in the case of a challenge like this one, the person doing it can be somewhat in control of the pleasantness of those experiences by choosing activities that will likely be enjoyed. Further, having more pleasant memories makes us happier (Fredrickson, 2004).
So, that’s the science. Now, let’s get on to the anecdotes.
Some Silly Lessons I Learned Along the Way
Day 1: Chocolate pancakes tend to be kinda bitter because, duh, cocoa powder is bitter. Make sure you add enough sweet to counteract that. (I cut out the applesauce from the recipe that I was loosely basing my creation on, and that turned out to be a major mistake.)
Days 2, 3, 7, 9, 11, 12, and 13: Listen to recommendations about movies, music, etc. from random people on the internet. Those suggestions are often good.
Day 10: Do not listen to every suggestion you get from random people on the internet! Sometimes those suggestions are terrible!
Days 4 and 16: Learning a new language is hard, but not that hard. What really seems to matter is dedication. I was not dedicated to either of the languages I tried during this challenge. (But I am dedicated to French, and I’m semi-dedicated to Spanish, and I’ve seen such growth in my ability to speak, read, and understand those.)
Day 5: Frankenstein is a good book so far.
Day 6: I love writing poetry. Outside of one month-long stint of doing it half a decade ago, I hadn’t really tried writing poems until just over a month ago. It’s really fun!
Day 8: I’m not good at winged eyeliner yet, but I’m getting there.
Days 14 and 21: It seems like a really quick and simple thing to start using a new app, but sometimes, it isn’t. But just because they aren’t easy to learn doesn’t mean that they are bad.
Days 15, 17, 18, 20, 25, and 28: Exploring your town and its various streets, parks, restaurants, etc. is really fun! I hope to invest more time into doing that in the future.
Days 19 and 23: Talking and reading about kindness and compassion isn’t enough–but it is something. I just need to remind myself to go and do kind things in addition to thinking about them.
Day 22: Making a good chicken and waffle sandwich isn’t as easy as it seems!
Day 26: Tetrachromacy in humans is real…but the online tests for it aren’t.
Day 27: Some days you can do a lot, and some days you can’t. It is necessary to forgive yourself when you have an off day.
Day 29: I don’t like working from home as much as working in person. Which seems like a weird thing to say writing a post for this blog–a blog that has exclusively been written from the comfort of my apartment. Still, it lets me know that however my work changes in the future, I need to make an effort to go out and interact with other people (once the pandemic is over, that is).
Days 24 and 30: It’s okay to try things, even if they serve no real purpose and even if you plan to get rid of the creations you make. You might not know how much you like doing something until you try it!
I can tell you that I enjoyed vast majority of the experiences from this challenge while they were happening, and even the ones that I didn’t like in the moment, I look back on fondly. And I don’t think that I’m an anomaly here; I think that between the fact that I tried things that I thought I might like and the tendency to view experiences pleasantly anyway, a positive outcome to the challenge was almost guaranteed.
But I didn’t just appreciate this challenge intellectually; I actually liked doing it. I liked waking up every morning and thinking “What new thing am I going to try today?” I liked exploring. I liked learning new things about the world and about myself.
While I don’t plan to continue this challenge in its fullness, I do want to keep trying new things when opportunities present themselves.
In this tumultuous time, I am sure that we are all doing new things or doing old things in a new way. Let me know something that you’ve learned recently while trying something new.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2004). The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. The Royal Society, (359), 1367–1377. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2004.1512. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1693418/pdf/15347528.pdf
Health and Happiness. (2007, June 13). Retrieved from http://content.time.com/time/specials/2007/article/0,28804,1631176_1630611_1630586,00.html
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Plasticity. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/plasticity
Stevens, A. P. (2019, December 3). Learning rewires the brain. Retrieved from https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/article/learning-rewires-brain
Walker, W. R., Skowronski, J. J., & Thompson, C. P. (2003). Life is Pleasant—and Memory Helps to Keep it that Way! Review of General Psychology, 7(2), 203–210. doi: 10.1037/1089-26188.8.131.52. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/gpr-72203.pdf
Wingeier, B. (2018, January 26). What Processes Are Taking Place In Our Brains When We Learn New Things? Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2018/01/26/what-processes-are-taking-place-in-our-brains-when-we-learn-new-things/#463dae9b51f9