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.
In a heartbeat, three simple words etched themselves on my tongue
Here’s another poem that I had written just slightly earlier than “That Night” on the opposite side of the same piece of scrap paper.
I miss sitting with you.
I remember that day, staring at the rushing Potomac before us And how your head was in my lap. We were surrounded by history and new experiences, But all I could think about was you, just you.
In a heartbeat, three simple words etched themselves on my tongue And seared the back of my throat And crushed my chest from the inside. I opened my mouth and said nothing.
I often wonder if I had said what I was feeling in that moment, Would everything be different now? Would this aching core of mine be threatening To tear me apart with its slashing claws and gnashing teeth?
All these months later, I am stuck once more. I keep trying to run, trying to fly, But your gravitational pull is too strong For me to even leave the ground.
Am I trapped by your will or my own?
Your birthday forces fresh blood Out of the wounds you inflicted. How can I put into words how important you are to me Without being reduced to tears?
So again, I stay silent, And again, I am filled with what-ifs.
When I saw that this week’s competition for Penable was about fantasy, I wasn’t sure if I should enter. Until now, I had never written poetry that would fall into the category of fantasy, so I wasn’t sure that I would be able to come up with any ideas. I’m so glad that I gave it a shot! This poem is a little different from what I normally write, but I really enjoyed doing it. Thanks Midnightlion for encouraging me to enter!
A Child’s Fantasy
In air thick with haze, She wakes to a maze, At the end, a green hedge with a door in.
She picks correct paths With ease, then she laughs. This silly place–to her, it is foreign.
Stepping through the door, She sees even more Of the land and the creatures upon it:
Both fairy and beast Trolls and sages–the least Of which speak in great rhymes like a sonnet.
With hope for adventure She asks will they send her On a quest that she may soon embark?
Then forward step two, These odd creatures who Know a task that’s both tricky and dark.
This smooth-talking frog And bespectacled dog, Tell of a prince who needs saving.
So, she runs through the world– That sly, clever girl– While cliff walls all around her are caving.
She is stopped by a knight Who dares her to a fight When she carelessly tramples his garden,
But she lacks any swords, So his request, she ignores, And decides she will instead outsmart him.
She tells riddles and rhymes Of both night and daytime, And apologizes for her poor introduction.
Thrilled by her charm and wit, The knight chooses to admit That a prince has been trapped in his dungeon.
She asks for permission To complete her sole mission And take the prince out of that dark place.
Though knowing the danger, The knight obliges the stranger, A frightened look crossing his tan face.
She strides through the hallways, Not scared, just as always, And finds the prince trapped in that prison.
She undoes his cuffs, And the prince huffs and puffs. He then tells her his bad premonitions.
But she saved the dear prince From the dungeon, hence She does think that the hard part is over.
Then, a dragon appears, And it fills her with fear Of consequence really quite sober.
The winged figure ascends; Its talons put to an end Her hour spent thinking and scheming.
Her eyes open to Teacher– Not some terrible creature– Who then tells her, “No more day dreaming!”
I’ve always said that I would try anything at least once.
I’ve always said that I would try anything at least once.
I mean that mostly hyperbolically…but not entirely.
I think that being open to new experiences has brought me some of the greatest moments in my life. This philosophy is the reason why I went skydiving. It’s why I joined in on a poorly planned trip to Canada. And it’s why I decided to go to a huge college with lots of opportunities for new things, rather than a small one where I felt more at ease.
This mindset also taught me a ton of lessons. For one, I absolutely hate rock climbing. For another, if you’re going to try to make a pie crust for the first time and you don’t have a rolling pin, you should use another cylindrical tool like a glass or a water bottle rather than just trying to press the dough down with your (clean, I promise you) hands. For one more, I am happiest when I spend time outdoors with my friends.
I know that trying new things makes me happy, but something has happened in the last couple of years: I’ve become complacent, not just with the big things, but with all the little habits that I’ve developed. I’ve gotten into a rut, and, in the middle of February, I decided to get out of it.
In this post, I’m going to share all of the things that I tried. On the next Friday post, I’ll talk about the science behind trying new things and the lessons that I learned along the way.
Day 1: Made Chocolate Pancakes (for myself for Valentine’s Day). These did not taste very good, but I also did not follow any one specific recipe, so that might have been due to user error. They do look pretty, though.
Day 2: Watched Booksmart for the first time. It’s a very well-done, funny movie. I would recommend it.
Day 3: Watched Fleabag for the first time. Loved it. There are 2 seasons, which amounts to a whopping total watch time of around 6 hours. Ah, the good old BBC and their super short seasons. I binged both in 2 days.
Day 4: Learned German for the first time. Ich bin eine frau. Obviously, I’m no good yet.
Day 5: Started reading Frankenstein for the first time.
Day 6: Posted a poem to this blog for the first time. When I did this, I wasn’t expecting to post so many more poems afterward, but here we are. You can find all of my poems here.
Day 7: Listened to BTS for the second time (oops!) and listened to Roddy Ricch for the first time. I liked “The Box” by Roddy Ricch, but not enough to save it to my music library.
Day 8: Tried my hand at winged eyeliner for the first time. Here are the results:
Day 9: Watched mother! for the first time. I really liked it. The film feels incredibly dreamlike since the sequence of events doesn’t flow the way one would expect them to. I liked the Biblical metaphors and the allusion to The Yellow Wallpaper.
Day 10: Watched Suspiria (2018) for the first time. I didn’t particular enjoy this movie. In fact, I needed to divide my watching of it across 3 days in order to finish it. (It also didn’t help that it’s 3 hours long.) I shouldn’t have been too surprised because I had previously watched the original Suspiria, and I didn’t particularly like that one either. In this new one, I found much of the graphic imagery superfluous, as well as much of the nudity. I did think, though, that it showed so much of Tilda Swinton’s range as an actor, since she played multiple characters.
Day 11: Watched Wonder for the first time. I’ve read the book multiple times and loved it each time. The movie is cute. I think I cried 3 times while watching it.
Day 12: Watched Howl for the first time (this is the last movie, I promise). I really liked it. It’s not super engaging, since the film is simply about the obscenity trial for Allen Ginsberg’s book Howl and Other Poems, as well as Ginsberg’s life experiences leading up to that point, but it’s a nice film to watch if you want some background noise. It was also really informative about Allen Ginsberg’s life, so if you’re into history about authors, you might appreciate it as well.
Day 13: Listened to the songs on U.S. Top 50 from artists I’ve never heard before (Lil Mosey, Trevor Daniel, Tones and I, YNW Melly, Jack Harlow, A Boogie wit da Hoodie, Surfaces, and more). I found 2 songs that I really like and saved to my music library: “Falling ” by Trevor Daniel and “death bed (feat. beabadoobee)” by Powfu.
Day 14: Tried the Let’s Meditate app for the first time. It was okay. I chose a sleep story, and it did, in fact, put me to sleep. It does seem to have an ever-changing selection of meditations. Additionally, it does not have separate meditations for free and paid versions, like a lot of other meditation apps do. However, the selection of meditations is pretty limited compared to other apps, even when you only take into account the free meditations on those apps. Additionally, I personally didn’t like the sound of the voice who narrated multiple sleep stories, and because there were so few to choose from, I had to listen to that particular narrator.
Day 15: Drove down some streets in my town that I had never driven down before. I found a new park along the way that I am going to test out later this month.
Day 16: Learned Latin for the first time. Ego sum femina. Once again, not that good yet.
Day 17: Drove down the remainder of the roads in my town that I have never driven down before.
Day 18: Went to a new park (different from the park I talked about on Day 15). I went down the wrong path at the beginning, which was an interesting experience in and of itself, but it also meant that I didn’t have time to experience the park as fully as I wanted to. I’ll have to go back at some point.
Day 19: Listened to a new podcast (The Kindness Podcast) for the first time. It has a lot in common with the direction that I’m planning to take this blog. I’ve added it to my podcast playlist.
Day 20: Went to that new park I discovered on Day 15. I didn’t actually mean to, but the Day 15 park turned out to be connected to the park that I was planning on testing out. It’s really cool! The paths take you down by a river that runs through the city. I’m excited to visit there during the summer. I regret not taking a picture for you guys (or for myself).
Day 22: Made a vegan chicken and waffle sandwich for the first time. It definitely was not very elaborate, since I just used frozen waffles and pre-prepared Chik’n patties, nor was it particularly good, but it was worth a shot. I think it would have been better if I had made my own waffles.
Day 23: Read the email newsletter for Greater Good Magazine for the first time. I first discovered this magazine and website while I was doing research for my post about compassion fatigue that you can read here. If you liked that post of mine, there’s a good chance that you will be interested in checking out their website.
Day 24: I tried making music online for the first time. I was embarrassingly bad at it and, after just under an hour, I became too frustrated to continue. However, I can see this endeavor as something that I would enjoy if I can just get over the hurdle of learning how to use the program. I’ll try it again some time.
Day 25: Went to a park I hadn’t been to before. This one was pretty standard. Trees, trails, a boardwalk over the marshy parts. I didn’t get lost this time, so go me!
Day 26: Tried a test for tetrachromacy for the first time. I scored at a level that would indicate that I do have tetrachromatic vision. However the very blog post where I took the test was all about how online tests for tetrachromacy aren’t reliable (partially because this particular test wasn’t created by a researcher and more importantly because typical computer monitors cannot display all the colors necessary for a true tetrachromacy test). It was a fun test nonetheless. I scored a 37. What did you score?
Day 27: Downloaded a new mobile game on my phone. It’s made by the same people who made Candy Crush. It wasn’t anything that new or different, and I always feel a little bit worse about myself after I spend time playing a mobile game. However, on that day, I had a headache and couldn’t fathom putting much time or energy into finding something new or different to do.
Day 28: Visited a new park with my family who came into town. The park was really just a soccer field and some muddy ground, and the sign with the park’s name on it wasn’t even placed into the ground; it was simply leaned up against the side of a shed! Whoops! At least now I know that park is still under construction, even though it is technically open.
Day 29: Worked via Skype for the first time. I had worked online before, but I always used a different program. It took a little while to figure out how to do it, but I am grateful that Skype exists and allows me to do my work from home during this time.
Day 30: Recorded a podcast for the first time. I deleted it immediately afterward because I don’t have any plans for how to use it and it was just to test the equipment I do have (which is just a pair of busted earbuds, my laptop, and an audio program that I don’t understand how to use). I do listen to a lot of podcasts and I have been wondering what it is like to need to fill empty space with sounds. Now, I know. Perhaps I’ll give podcasting another go at some point in the future.
It took a bit of energy to try a new thing everyday for 30 days straight, but it was so worth the effort. In my next post, I’ll go into detail about how I felt and what I learned, so for now I just have a few questions: What new things have you done recently? How did you feel after doing them?
In my brief time of writing this blog, it has morphed from a place where I share random thoughts that I have throughout the day to a very planned space that I utilize both to share my own creative works (namely poetry) and to reflect on the topic of compassion, both toward oneself and toward others. Because to this calculated schedule that I rigged, I had a piece about trying new things that was due to come out today. However, my heart isn’t in releasing that piece right now.
The COVID-19 outbreak has had a powerful effect on my life and the lives of those around me. Like many Americans and others around the world, I have been at home for the past several days. The crisis has stripped my local grocery stores of their stocks, filled the news emails that I receive every morning, and taken over a large number of thoughts in my own head. It seems like the easy choice would be to give into the despair of this wide-scale, frightening problem.
But I don’t want to give in to despair. In 10 or 20 years, when the world looks back on this period as a major historical event, I want to remember it as a time of growth and compassion in my life.
I created the following list of ways to show kindness during this time for myself, but I hope that my experiences might provide some ideas and hope to other readers, too.
Hey, we’re in this together, and we’ll get through this together.
Without further ado, here are the ways that I have found to show kindness in the face of the coronavirus:
1. Practice Appropriate Social-Distancing
Congratulations! You’re probably already doing this one to whatever extent you are able!
The kindest thing that we can do right now is to slow COVID-19’s spread, thus limiting overwhelm at hospitals and ultimately preventing this virus from becoming more deadly than it already is. This means staying at home whenever possible, bumping elbows rather than shaking hands, and staying at least six feet apart from others when it is necessary to interact with them.
In the U.S., there are mandates at the city and state levels to limit the size of crowds. Obeying these mandates is the kind (not to mention civically responsible and potentially only legal) thing to do.
Similar to how the Ebola epidemic was connected to Africa, the coronavirus outbreak is connected to Asia. Without any additionally information, it seems reasonable to be afraid of other things connected to Asia: Asian restaurants, Asian grocery stores, and, most appallingly, Asian people. But this fear is grounded in ignorance, not knowledge.
Seeking out more information about the disease will lead you to learn how it spreads (usually by people who are experiencing symptoms), where it is spreading (which is in pockets all over the world, not just in Asian populations), and what you can do to protect yourself (follow local health recommendations, wash your hands often, etc.). None of this information would lead you to singularly avoid people from a particular race or nationality.
Prejudice is not kindness. The kinder choice is to stay educated about the virus to eliminate any misconceptions that may lead to prejudice.
Anecdotally, I want to offer the advice to be careful about how you’re learning about coronavirus. About a week ago, my family was gathered for dinner at my grandfather’s house. Because I don’t have cable at my apartment, that day was my first exposure to the way that news channels have been covering the outbreak. The stories about the virus were constructed in a way that seemed like it was meant to increase fear. Prior to seeing that type of news coverage, I could not understand why people were so panicked about the disease. Now, I get it.
I have two take-aways from this experience: First, try to learn more about the virus from sources that rely on facts rather than fear. (So far, the New York Times seems to be doing a good job of relying on the facts. They’re also eliminating the paywall for their articles about coronavirus during this time, so they may be worth checking out. Here is a link to that coverage.) Second, if you feel overwhelmed by learning about the virus, take a break and come back to it later. Don’t wear yourself out over this or work yourself into a panic. After all, showing compassion during this time also includes showing self-compassion.
3. Practice Self-Care
This method of showing kindness comes in two parts: taking care of mental health and taking care of physical health.
There are a variety of ways to show take care of your mental health during this time. You can talk to others about your issues through Skype or over the phone or potentially even in person depending on the social-distancing recommendations in your area. You can journal about your feelings of stress. You can download an app and try out meditation. You can keep a gratitude list.
Though you might now have to rearrange your schedule to accommodate changes such as working from home or having kids at home instead of at school, do your best to maintain those routines and habits that you know promote good mental health. If you’ve put work into keeping your brain healthy in the past, don’t lose that progress now. Finding pockets of your day to maintain some sense of normalcy may make great differences in your calmness and clarity.
Your physical health is also very important during this outbreak. Eating well and getting good sleep will help to support your immune system. Additionally, staying physically active may be very helpful when it comes to clearing your head and keeping up your overall health.
Prioritizing your physical health may take some creativity right now. If you don’t want to (or can’t) go to a gym, you can find other outlets to stay physically fit. In most places, it is still fine to walk around in a park or just your neighborhood (although you should check with your local social-distancing recommendations). You could also ride your bike, run, or jog. Additionally, there are a variety of apps or workout videos that are available at little to no cost, many of which have options for doing body-weight exercises in case you don’t own equipment. And who knows? You might even discover a new app or style of workout that you love and want to keep doing after this outbreak lets up.
Taking care of yourself is important. As mentioned at the end of my last list item, when thinking about ways to show compassion during this outbreak, self-compassion should be included. If the idea of being kind to yourself is not enough motivation to take time for these practices consider this: being as mentally and physically healthy as possible during this turmoil will allow you to take care of others to the most of your ability.
4. Act on Impulses to be Kind
I want to be careful here because I don’t mean to contradict any of the previous points that I made earlier in this post. If an idea for showing kindness occurs to you, but it involves putting yourself at an unnecessary risk for contracting the virus, it is very likely that the kinder thing is to prioritize your own health.
However, there are still plenty of ways to show kindness that are specific to your financial, social, or career situation. Perhaps you have money (or time) to donate to food banks. Perhaps you have an excess of supplies, and you can give some to a neighbor who doesn’t have enough.
I have my own story of acting on an impulse to be kind during this crisis.
When the schools and libraries around me closed down, I realized that the students I know won’t have access to new books for the next several weeks or even months. I sent a text about my idea of providing some books from my collection to each of their parents (all of whom quickly and gladly accepted my offer), and I created bags of books for each of the students that I delivered earlier this week.
I debated whether or not to include that story in this post because it seems self-congratulatory. Ultimately, I decided to include it for this reason: I almost didn’t do it. When the thought of digging into my collection and then delivering the books occurred to me, I thought about all the reasons why the parents might refuse. They might not want me coming to their houses, even if it is just for a brief moment to drop off the books. They might not trust that the books are clean enough for their children to use. They might think that I had some sinister reason for offering to let them borrow my books. (I don’t know where that last worry came from because it seems irrational, but it was a worry that I had nonetheless.) I had all these excuses in my head about why I shouldn’t even bother trying, but I ultimately figured that it was worth making the offer. The worst thing that could happen would be that the parents would refuse it.
But they didn’t refuse. All of them accepted. And now, those students will have a greater number of books to read during the time away from (in-person) school.
So again, don’t put yourself at risk, but do act on your safe impulses for kindness. You’ll be glad you did.
5. Just Don’t Be Greedy
I’ve heard horror stories of chaos at grocery stores, people yelling at customer service workers, and allegations of stockpiling supplies for the purposes of price gouging. The most recent episode of the radio show and podcast This American Life opens with the story of a woman who stole two medical face masks from her dentist office.
Of course, these stories are all subject to our collective and individual negativity biases, leading to their promotion (since they are very easy to clickbait) and their retention in the zeitgeist (because we are more likely to ruminate on negative stories rather than positive ones). I have every reason to believe that most of the stories that will arise from this pandemic will be ones about neighbors helping neighbors, people obeying the recommendations of medical professionals in order to dramatically slow the spread, and innovators discovering new ways to do things that they never would have thought of without the pressure of a potential disaster.
That said, don’t allow yourself to become a character in one of the negative stories. Take care of yourself and those in your household, but do your best to make sure that you’re not preventing others from doing the same for themselves. Do right by other people.
I use my words to build a house with a solid foundation to offer stability. I utilize orange-red bricks To build up the walls. I put a gray, shingled roof over the top To protect it from the rain. I leave spaces for doors and windows So that others may enter or peer inside.
I use my verbs to lay down the concrete driveway, My nouns to place the sturdy hedges, My adjectives to grow the flowers in shades Of magenta and deep violet.
With my sentences, I labor until the landscape is complete, Until I am sure that the house will not topple over, Until there are trees and grass Decorating the space with vibrant green.
I hope you can see this view In all its imaginary glory.
These descriptions don’t come naturally to me, But my favorite author paints pictures with her words, Wondrous, dynamic images, And I try to copy her.
The truth is when I close my eyes And think these phrases, Everything is blank.
I cannot see what I created.
But that doesn’t mean that I can’t build a house with a foundation and walls and a roof, with doors and windows, Because even if I don’t have a picture, I still have my words.