A paradox of happiness: we seek to control our lives but novelty makes us happy

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I just finished Gregory Berns’s book Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment. He argues that novelty and challenge are key components of satisfaction. Other studies confirm that people who do new things—travel to new place, learn a new game—have a greater sense of well-being than people who stick to the familiar.


I need to remember this, because no one loves the familiar and the routine more than I do. But it’s true, when I do do something new—whether voluntarily or involuntarily—I find it enjoyable.

My recent experience of serving on a jury is a good example. I didn’t want to be picked for any jury, because I didn’t want my productive routine disrupted; once I was chosen, hearing the case was difficult, because it took so much concentration and because the facts were so tremendously sad (criminally negligent homicide); reaching a verdict was tough, because we had to work through our disagreements to reach a unanimous decision. The whole experience was upsetting, draining, and depressing. I went to bed at 8:30 p.m. for several nights while the trial was going on.

But at the same time, I found serving on the jury fascinating, even exhilarating, and I could tell that the other jurors felt the same way. I was puzzled by how something so distressing could also be so gratifying.

Of course, part of the satisfaction came from accepting an important duty and handling it conscientiously.

But having read the Berns book, I think part of the satisfaction came just from doing something so new. I spent my days with new people, thought about new situations, faced new routines and new responsibilities.

So this is one of the many paradoxes of happiness: we seek to control our lives, but the novel and the unexpected are important sources of happiness.

It’s one of Life’s True Rules: there is great joy in routine, but an occasional disruption makes the routine all the sweeter.

From 2006 through 2014, as she wrote The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, Gretchen chronicled her thoughts, observations, and discoveries on The Happiness Project Blog.



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