I have the best of both worlds – The Science Behind Our Need for Variety

Since the stay-at-home orders in California I spend 4 days a week helping one of my daughters, who is working from home. I watch over my granddaughter’s schoolwork, cook, do laundry, walk their dog and garden. My granddaughter is restricted in TV and internet time so we spend time crafting, hiking and “playing”. No two days are the same. Then I’m back to my own house for a 3 day week-end.  I tell my friends I have the best of both worlds right now – 4 days interacting with people I love and 3 days of solitude.

I’m aware how fortunate I am. During this pandemic there are hundreds of thousands of people my age who are sheltering in place, many alone.
Being cooped up can make everyone a little stir crazy and add feeling out-of-control during a quarantine.  There is research that suggests . . .

” . . . people feel happier when they have more variety in their daily routines—when they go to novel places and have a wider array of experiences,” 

“The opposite is also likely true: Positive feelings may drive people to seek out these rewarding experiences more frequently.”

Some people’s brains respond more positively to getting off the beaten track.

Recently published brain imaging research* (conducted before the pandemic) suggests that the monotony created by a homogeneous daily routine that lacks new and diverse experiences may be harder for people who have more robust functional connectivity between their hippocampus and striatum. 

Is diversity in humans’ daily experiences associated with more positive emotional states?

To answer this question, researchers used GPS trackers to follow the daily movements of study participants in New York and Miami for a few months. The researches asked subjects to send text messages reporting on their positive or negative emotional states as they went about their day and moved from place to place or stayed in the same location.

At another phase of the study, participants had MRI scans to document functional connectivity between different brain regions.

Study participants with more robust hippocampal-striatal functional connectivity tended to report having a stronger emotional response to getting off the beaten track.

On days when people with this brain signature experienced more variety in their physical surroundings and were able to spend time in different geographical locations, they were more likely to report feeling “happy,” “excited,” “strong,” and “relaxed” or “attentive.”

“These results suggest a reciprocal link between the novel and diverse experiences we have during our daily exploration of our physical environments and our subjective sense of well-being.” 

Regardless of how much happiness or dysphoria someone feels being under lockdown, in the short-term public health experts agree that stay-at-home guidelines and social distancing are in everyone’s long-term interest. There are small things you have control over and can do.

We’ve posted some practical advice for those of us who are still sheltering in place and only leave home for essentials.  Even small changes that introduce greater variability into your physical or mental routine are beneficial—such as:

  • Exercising at home
  • Going on a walk around the block
  • Taking a different route to the grocery store or pharmacy
  • Reading about diverse locations and situations
  • Watching travel shows
  • Taking up a hobby

Does the daily grind of COVID stay-at-home orders make you feel every day is a carbon copy of the day before?





*This peer-reviewed paper (Heller et al., 2020) was published on May 18 in the journal Nature Neuroscience. 

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