What I Learned by Trying New Things (And Why You Should Try New Things Too)

What evidence exists to explain why trying new things is good for me?

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.

Peace out!

Resources

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 Psychology7(2), 203–210. doi: 10.1037/1089-2680.7.2.203. 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

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The Do Something New Every Day Project

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.

A tree with ornaments on it, even at the end of February. A true Christmas miracle.

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 21: Tried a new podcast app, Pocket Casts. (Can you tell that I adore podcasts?) In terms of user interface and its discovery feature, it didn’t seem any better or worse than Stitcher, which is the podcast app I currently use. The one major benefit that I could see to Pocket Casts is being able to share specific snippets of podcasts with friends. I still need to weigh whether that feature would be worth the time I’ll need to spend to learn a new interface.

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.

Bad photo, mediocre sandwich

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.

I had to balance my phone on a tissue box and my monitor to get this photo. I hope it was worth all the energy and talent I put into taking it, lol :).




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?

I hope you’re having a great day!

Peace out!

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