Three Longs & Three Shorts

Don’t Approach Life Like a Picky Eater

In this piece, Arthur Brooks explains how you and I can have the right amount of neophilia i.e. openness to new experiences. Why is this a good thing? “Openness to a wide variety of life experiences, from visiting interesting places to considering unusual political views, brings happiness. “Only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn’t exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible,” Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in his Letters to a Young Poet, “will himself sound the depths of his own being.”
He had the data on his side. Openness, also known as neophilia, is strongly, positively associated with happiness. Of course, you can push this too far, becoming chronically disgruntled without a constant stream of novelty, or turning into a danger addict always searching for the next extreme experience. True happiness comes from a healthy, balanced neophilia that cultivates a love for the adventure of life.
Neophilia is correlated with happiness insofar as it is associated with extroversion, and extroversion strongly predicts happiness. But neophilia also causes happiness because it is an engine of interest, which, according to the research psychologist Carroll Izard, is one of the two basic positive emotions (the other being joy). It is highly pleasurable to have your interest piqued, which naturally happens when you’re exposed to new things….
A big part of the neophilic tendency is inherited. A number of studies have measured this; for example, a 2002 meta-analysis of research on twins found that openness to new experiences is about 57 percent genetic. A few years later, researchers in Japan found that a particular mitochondrial enzyme called monoamine oxidase A—which neutralizes dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine—is more active in the brains of individuals most likely to have novelty seeking as a core personality trait.”
But there is a fly in the ointment – too much neophilia can be dangerous: “There are more serious negatives to neophilia than mindless consumerism. High levels of neophilia are associated with risk-taking behavior in childhood, and thus to addiction later on. And while it encourages us to explore and create as we look for new stimuli, it also makes contentment especially elusive as we build up a tolerance for novelty with amazing speed. Undisciplined neophiliacs are often restless wanderers, jumping between projects, quitting jobs, and moving frequently—which, as Benjamin Storey and Jenna Silber Storey show in their book Why We Are Restless, are all things that tend to make people less content in life.”
So in this world of endless optimisation, how do we find a happy medium with regards to neophilia? Mr Brooks has three tips for us:
  • “First, regularly interrogate your tastes, and run experiments. One common misconception is that our preferences are set in stone and there’s no use trying to change them—especially as we age and become grumpier about new things. The data don’t support this assumption. Indeed, some studies show that older workers are more open than their younger colleagues to changes in their job responsibilities….”
  • “Second, make a point of choosing curiosity over comfort. Write up a list of new experiences and ideas you’ve yet to try, and explore one per week. They don’t have to be big things. Perhaps you never read fiction, not because you don’t like to but because you are more accustomed to biographies; pick up a novel. If you usually watch an old favorite movie instead of something new…”
  • “Third, avoid the trap of newness for its own sake. If you’re pretty neophilic, you might already be taking the suggestions above, and reaping the rewards. But you might also be prone to restlessness and instability, and look to material novelty for a quick fix. In this case, try resetting your satisfaction with a “consumption fast”: Don’t buy anything inessential for two months…”