Sometimes, sticking with familiar routines for too long can lead to staleness and a sense of living life on auto-pilot. Introducing a bit of novelty here and there can give that much-needed jolt to the senses and promote new ways of experiencing the world.
I’ve recently returned from an all-too-short but still wonderful holiday on the Caribbean coast of Mexico — a place I’d never been to before and which held the promise of sunshine, sea, sailing and sight-seeing. In other words, a chance to escape from the busy routines of work and home. It began in downbeat, monotonous fashion with the early-morning motorway drive to London and then the wearying 10-hour flight to Cancun. But on arrival in the mid-afternoon Mexican sunshine, the deliciously muggy hot air seemed to soak deep into my pores, parched as they were by the super-dried air on the plane, and made the long journey instantly worthwhile.
Strangely though, it wasn’t until much later, when I was sitting on our hotel balcony looking up at the stars and listening to the sound of the waves on the nearby beach, that the novelty really began to strike me. I’ve always been interested in astronomy and star-gazing; as a child in rural Scotland, where light pollution was almost non-existent, I used to hang out of my bedroom window on freezing cold winter nights, straining my eyes towards the distant stars and wondering if anyone was gazing back at me. I would greet the constellations like old friends; the early appearance of Orion meant that winter was well and truly here; not far away, the orange point of Aldebaran in the constellation of Taurus seemed to glare balefully outwards; while the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, used to dance before my eyes as I squinted at them, trying to make out all seven of the brightest stars in the group.
But there in Mexico, as I stared upward from our balcony, I realised that Orion looked… well, odd. Unlike at home, the constellation was lying in an almost horizontal position, certainly far more supine than I’d ever seen it before. And that was when it hit me — I’m a long, long way from home! The sheer novelty of seeing that old familiar figure — part of my happy childhood world — in such a different position, made me laugh out loud with delight. And although it was 3 o’clock in the morning and I was suffering from a thoroughly unacclimatised body clock, I felt wide awake and alive, with all of my senses suddenly primed and ready for fresh input.
I think that the surprise of seeing Orion ‘out of position’ like that was the first stage in my switching-off process from everyday routine — as if my mind had been startled into a fresh awareness of the world through the subtle (and not-so-subtle) differences from what I was accustomed to in the UK. By the time we headed down for breakfast several hours later, I was completely absorbed in the newness of my surroundings; the gecko that peered out at us from the flower bed near the pool; the orange and red plumage flashing through the trees as some exotic bird called out for its mate; and then the following day, watching from our balcony as an extraordinary thunderstorm swept slowly over the flat marshlands at the back of the hotel, making several of us squeal with fright when lightning struck almost on top of us.
Novelty has a way of switching our brains and senses into a more active mode; in order to process the new or unfamiliar information that’s coming in, we need to be more alert, more aware of what’s going on around us and to take ourselves off ‘cruise control’. A few years ago, when I had a 45-minute commute to work every morning, I’d sometimes realise that I’d driven for several miles without consciously taking in any of my surroundings; I was so accustomed to the routine of that drive that I no longer took any notice of it. That felt quite unsafe to me (and quite possibly was to other road-users as well) and so now and then I would take another, less familiar route to work, for the purpose of keeping myself more alert and aware of what was going on around me.
In evolutionary terms, this all makes sense. Unfamiliar places carry a higher level of potential risk to our safety or wellbeing, and so we’re wired to become more watchful and aware of our surroundings. Our anxiety levels may increase, but so long as they don’t increase too much, this is a good thing — the hormones flooding into our system help us prepare to deal with potential dangers. But it also means that you start focusing on the here and now, on what is right there around you, rather than dwelling on internal thoughts and feelings, whilst your body works on auto-pilot to get you to your destination. This can be a helpful strategy for people experiencing distressing patterns of negative or critical thinking about themselves, as it turns the focus of attention outwards rather than in.
Imagine walking along a well-trodden path through a wood; the going is easy, you don’t have to watch your footing too carefully, and you know which turns to take long before they appear. Now imagine stepping instead onto a path that you’ve only used once or twice before; you’re not quite sure what the ground is like beneath your feet and it’s so overgrown that you can hardly see your way ahead. And yet, it’s a bit of an adventure, this new path! New sights and sounds and smells assail you from all sides and you’re really having to think about where to place your feet, and how to brush aside all this foliage that’s lying across your route. You’re having to work at finding your way.
Introducing some novelty into your life can help jolt you out of a rut, or simply give your brain something else to do other than its usual routine. And it doesn’t have to mean a trip to the other side of the world! Doing something different can be as simple as taking a different route to work, finding a different cafe to buy your lunchtime sandwiches, going to a different park to take the dog for a walk. Breaks in the routine force the brain to use neural pathways that otherwise lie fallow. And that promotes growth, and new ways of operating in the world.
As for me, I returned from holiday feeling refreshed and renewed — as if I’d soaked up novelty through all my senses and was ready to tackle the routines of daily life again. And I’m already planning a few breaks in my schedule over the next few months to keep the novelty factor fresh.