I recently concluded a three-part series on essentials for happiness and peace (see HERE, HERE, and HERE), and I continue to give a lot of thought to practices that help us to experience more calm and fulfillment in our lives. In my last post, I included the following brief reader comment on the importance of novelty for her personal happiness:
“One thing that jumps out to me that I would add as a helpful practice/concept is novelty, which I view as seeing, trying, doing and thinking new things.”
The concept of novelty wasn’t something I considered when putting together my own list of helpful practices, but it has come into play for me at least twice in the past couple of weeks. In today’s post, I explain why novelty can help us to be happier while also mitigating the all too common phenomenon of time “speeding by” as we age. I will also share two novel experiences I’ve had this month, highlighted by some of my favorite photos taken to commemorate those times (you can see many of my previous photos HERE).
Why Does Time “Fly”?
As you look at your calendar, do you find yourself thinking, “I can’t believe it’s almost May! Where did the time go?” I know that I have had such thoughts many times, and the incidence of these sentiments has increased for me as I’ve gotten older. It often feels like my life is virtually racing by. This both scares me and gives me pause, but I never really understood why time seems to have sped up as I entered into my forties and fifties (I’ll be 53 in August). It wasn’t until I heard a podcast interview with time management expert Laura Vanderkam that I had any inkling as to what was going on.
It turns out that our experience of time going by faster has to do with a lack of novelty in our lives. Most people become very set in their ways as they age and they develop hard and fast routines that are followed on a daily basis. We tend to become comfortable with the way we live our lives and don’t often try new things or vary how we spend our time. Because of the way our brains work, this leads to the subjective feeling of time going by fast.
As Laura Vanderkam explains in the second chapter of her book, Off the Clock (which I’m currently reading and am finding fascinating…), as powerful as our brains are, it’s too unwieldy to catalog every single data point from our daily 16 to 18 waking hours. Consequently, the brain decides which information is useful to remember at a later date and it culls out all repetitive data. If we do the same thing every day, we won’t actually remember most of those days. For example, if we drive the same exact route each workday, those hundreds of trips will be “telescoped” into our memory as one single trip. If we do many types of repetitive activities each day or week, we’ll have a lot of telescoped memories, and this lack of distinct memories leads to the feeling that time is going by rapidly. We’re simply not remembering all that much of our days, weeks, months, and years due to this “sameness.”
This is Where Novelty Comes In…
If we want to slow down our subjective passage of time, we need to incorporate more novelty into our lives, as the memories that stand out are those that involve newness or intensity. Think about it… Can you remember a day when you did something special and that day seemed to last longer than most other days? If so, it’s probably because there was a lot about that particular day that was different from your usual routine. Therefore, your brain had an abundance of novel information to catalog and hold on to for future reference. When you look back upon such days, many memories are recalled and relived.
This is true for all types of novel and memorable days, both good and bad. I’m sure many of you remember where you were and what you were doing on days when you heard difficult news, such as the death of a loved one or a national disaster. We also frequently remember what we did on our last birthday or on Christmas, whereas we probably don’t remember what we were doing on December 15th (unless, of course, that’s a notable day for us). Not only are holidays and birthdays special days for most people, we don’t generally engage in our typical activities on such days. We’re usually doing something extraordinary and memorable like enjoying a special meal or celebrating with friends and family.
It’s not too surprising that my reader mentioned novelty as something that increases her sense of happiness and peace. When she’s seeing, trying, doing, and thinking new things, time is likely slowing down for her and she’s experiencing more enjoyment in life. She’s also likely to remember her novel experiences much more than the details of mundane existence. I’m willing to bet that she also feels more alive when she’s either engaged in novel activities or looking back on them.
How Much Novelty?
Of course, we can only experience so many holidays and vacations. Most people have to go to work and do regular chores and maintenance activities. But fortunately, a little novelty can go a long way, and we can inject bits of novelty into our day-to-day lives. In Off the Clock, Laura Vanderkam offers some suggestions for turning bits of time into bits of joy, including the following:
- Park in a different lot than usual and walk through a new neighborhood.
- Eat a meal in your backyard on a warm summer day.
- Leave work a bit early and meet your spouse for a drink.
- Write a letter to the editor of your local paper on a night when you usually watch TV.
- Visit a store you’ve driven by many times and have always been intrigued about.
- Invite a friend to take a short hike with you in a nearby state park.
There are many things we can do to incorporate novelty in our lives. Even switching the order in which we do things can shift our experience of a given day. It doesn’t take a lot to make our days more memorable, but it’s also fun to do the bigger things once in a while, such as taking a day trip or going on an out of town holiday. I have done both of these things in the past few weeks and it definitely helped me to feel more invigorated and alive. It also makes me feel like April 2019 didn’t go by quite as rapidly as March.
A Multi-Day Getaway…
Earlier this month, I went to Nashville, Tennessee, for five days to meet up with a dozen or so friends who I met through the Facebook group I started back in 2015 related to my previous blog, Recovering Shopaholic (the group was turned over to new management two years later). This was the third time I met up with this group of women – the first meetup took place in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2016 (chronicled in this post) and the second meetup was held the following year in San Diego, where I live. I have thoroughly enjoyed all three of these gatherings and I hope we’ll continue to make it an annual (or close to annual) occurrence.
I feel that I packed a whole lot of novelty and experience into my time in Nashville, and I have many happy memories that I can reflect back upon. The trip included a nice mix of visiting tourist attractions and enjoying relaxing meals and conversations with dear friends. The days when I was away definitely seemed longer than my usual days at home and the trip at large felt like it encompassed more days than it actually did. I also recaptured my joy of taking photos while on this trip, probably because I liked having new places to photograph. Here are some of my favorite photos from this wonderful getaway:
… And an Enjoyable Day Trip
Last Sunday (Easter), my husband and I decided to take a drive out to Borrego Desert for the day. We had wanted to do this for several weeks, but kept getting derailed by home improvement tasks (the joys of home ownership…). The window of opportunity to enjoy the desert before the scorching summer heat was rapidly closing, so we’re glad we opted to make the drive when we did. Borrego Desert is approximately a two-hour drive from where we live, but it’s really a world away. The climate and landscape is vastly different from what we have here in San Diego, and I like the quiet beauty of the desert. I always feel more peaceful there, away from the buzz of the city and the associated throngs of people and cars.
While we were out in the desert, we took a short hike on the Palm Canyon Trail, which is three miles long and extends up the hills into a canyon framed by tall palm trees. We didn’t take many photos of this jaunt, but here are a few (you can see several more via the above link), including one of me looking happy in my favorite colors (cobalt and black, but of course).
In Praise of More Novelty
I typically take only one or two overnight trips per year and it’s often to visit my family in the Lake Tahoe area. I would like to travel to at least one new place per year moving forward, but I’d also like to take more day trips as well. My husband and I agreed that we’d like to do monthly day trips, and we made a list of places to visit, some of which are new to us and others that we’d like to revisit and view through new eyes. It’s a lot easier logistically to do day trips than longer excursions, so we believe it’s doable to keep up with our monthly goal.
Of course, novelty doesn’t only have to include travel or even day trips. In addition to the Laura Vanderkam ideas that I mentioned above, I have some ideas of my own on how to incorporate more novelty into my life, including:
- Go for a walk in an unexplored part of town.
- Go to coffee or lunch somewhere new, even alone.
- Take my computer to a coffee shop to write rather than doing it at home.
- Rearrange my routine so that it’s not so routine.
- Pick a place at random on a local map and go there.
I’m sure there are many other possibilities and I’d love to get your ideas. I definitely want to slow down my experience of time and have more memories to reflect on as time goes by. Here’s to more novelty, happiness, and fulfillment!
Please feel free to share your thoughts on the topics addressed in this post. I always enjoy reading what you have to say – and I learn a lot from you! For those who particularly enjoy my wardrobe-related posts, you’re in luck, as my next essay will be on that subject. I’m hoping to get back to writing here more often, as some things in my life are shifting and I can make this blog more of a priority again. If you have ideas for topics you’d like me to cover, I’m always open to suggestions.