A few weeks before Thanksgiving, the bathroom of my yoga studio suddenly had a basket of rocks on the counter. Each one was painted with a different word: “wisdom,” “meek,” “strength,” “open”… “Take what you need, and when you don’t need it anymore, bring it back for someone else,” I was told. So I snuck into the bathroom, looked at my options and – as if by choosing one I’d be yelling out my most painful, shameful secret – quickly tucked “new” into my palm and closed my fingers around it.
I tend to revert to the old, I thought as I took it back to my bag, so this will encourage me to try things that are new.
I got home, put it on my desk where I’d see it every day and patted myself on the back for my enthusiasm to change. It was a new era.
Now this is where I’d like to pause. If you’re anything like me, you figured out your favorite cereal in 2009 and have never looked back. You tend to find a song you love and slowly kill it (and everyone around you) by repeating it for two weeks straight. You consider that things might work out with that one ex a second time around rather than going out there and meeting someone new. While maybe not entirely fulfilling, life is comfortable in its lack of newness.
Perhaps predictably, that rock on my desk began to haunt me. Months were going by and I wasn’t doing all that much that was “new.” I was still eating Barbara’s Shredded Spoonfuls, aside from a momentary dabble with their Morning Oat Crunch. I hadn’t asked that guy who works next door to my yoga studio out like the gutsy alter ego I’d dreamed up was ready to storm in and do (“No, I do not want another acai bowl, I am downright sick of acai bowls, would you like to hang out sometime? Also, what is your name?”). I was flirting with the notions of honesty and openness and vulnerability – of allowing myself to be truly and entirely seen – but I was still looking at them through a rather cautious pane of glass. But something else was happening to me during this time: I was beginning to understand different, more important ways of looking at what “new” means.
I’d grown quite attached to this rock being on my desk and everything that it represented about me – is it possible that in some twisted way we want to be reminded of our own failures? – when a friend sent me a text message in March: “Wanna see a picture of driving into New York City in the rain? It might suck but it might be cool.” As with anytime I have a major epiphany, my first thought was a very loud exclamation of an inappropriate word that starts with F. My second was a jumbled mix of everything I’d been trying to understand coming together: shouldn’t a picture of driving into New York City in the rain always be cool? And if it isn’t, is that not maybe a reflection of something about us? Something worn down and lost and maybe broken – but more than anything, something about us that can be changed, restored?
What if we could train ourselves to see our world with fresh eyes every day? What if a picture of driving into New York City in the rain could always leave us awestruck?
It’s in our biological nature to become bored with routine – our brain’s reward circuitry is downright wired to experience a surge of dopamine in response to novelty. Which means that a lot of our excitement and happiness are dependent on our lives constantly being filled with new experiences. But at a certain point in life, it’s very possible that you’re just not experiencing much that is NEW anymore. You wake up, go to work, squeeze in dinner, go to bed and do it all again in the morning; on weekends, you hang out with the same people and go to the same places. But what if novelty is something that we can create on a daily basis? How might our perception of our day-to-day lives change if we could train ourselves to frequently see the ordinary things around us as new?
In his TED talk on gratefulness being at the core of true happiness, Brother David Steindl-Rast shares that he reminded himself to be grateful every day by putting little stickers on his light switches and water faucets, so that he would remember to stop and look and appreciate. What he was really doing here was creating a sense of novelty – encouraging himself to see the world as new. Maintaining a more conscious notion of novelty throughout our day enables us to practice gratitude on a deeper, more conscious level. If we can see our cars and homes and friends as “new” every day, we’ll redefine their value to us more frequently and will likely in turn treat them with higher levels of appreciation. We’ll complain less. We’ll feel more perpetually fascinated by the world around us. Waiting in line at the DMV might even become something of a spiritual experience (maybe).
But, like all things worth our while, creating novelty is daily work. It takes work to wake up and see our alarm clocks – our toothbrushes, our shoelaces, a doorknob – as novel. And our resources are not infinite; if we spent even an hour internalizing everything around us as new, we’d need a nap by breakfast. Plus, as a friend pointed out to me, why would we even want or need to see everything around us as new? I agree with her; we don’t. But in meaningfully doing this kind of work during those times where we find ourselves ready to complain or feeling like a victim, we may be able to change our perception of the situation, so much so that we can make it a positive experience and tap into a truer sense of happiness and contentment.
At the same time, what if some of the things in our lives are truly detriments to the progression of ourselves or society? Things that we shouldn’t work to appreciate but instead should work to change? This is another situation in which working every day to see the things that have become comfortable to us as new is important. Because there’s something else about creating novelty too: it can protect us.
Ray Dalio, founder of the investment firm Bridgewater Associates, believes that “there is a strong tendency to get used to and accept very bad things that would be shocking if seen with fresh eyes.” While one part of our happiness is born out of the ability to find excitement in the mundane, another equally important part stems from the ability to recognize when we’ve grown used to something that doesn’t serve us. There is likely something that every one of us has come to tolerate but might be stunned by if we were seeing it for the first time. Maybe it’s a toxic relationship, an abusive home or a disrespectful boss. Maybe it’s something about us, about the way that we’re living our lives – sticking with an unsatisfying job, self-medicating by partying too much or not setting boundaries for respect in our relationships. If we can train ourselves to really see the harmful things we’ve come to accept over time, maybe we can learn to make small daily changes away from those quietly dangerous routines and patterns. Maybe as a result we’ll get closer and closer to our authentic self and the truest kind of happiness.
What I’ve learned is this: creating novelty is an effortful practice. It requires patience and constant self-forgiveness for those times when we catch ourselves slipping back into our old ways. It’s not something that we’ll accomplish by next week or next year. It’s not something for which we’ll ever be able to see a concrete, finite payoff. It’s life work; we’ll never be done.
But it also seems that through just doing this work, we tap into an unparalleled level of happiness and contentment. If one of our greatest risks is settling for an unfulfilling, “comfortable” life, learning to create novelty on a day to day basis is at least a piece of this very complex puzzle. Because it allows us – despite pain and adversity and heartbreaks – to at the end of the day say, I am so lucky. My life is so beautiful. It’s perhaps in doing this conscious work in small ways daily that we’ll gradually end up making the lofty, larger changes that we set out to accomplish at the start, when we first told ourselves that we wanted to be someone who could try “new” things.