Want to keep your mind happy as lockdown drags on? The secret is variety.
In a study conducted before the pandemic, New York University researchers GPS-tracked participants in New York and Miami for three to four months, while asking them their emotional states via text message. The results showed a direct connection between emotions and differing physical environments: the more locations visited in a day correlated with more positive emotions, like happiness and excitement, and feelings of relaxation, strength, and attentiveness. The effect increased the longer people spent in those places. Participants underwent MRI scans to pinpoint associated brain activity in the hippocampus and striatum, which process novelty, reward, and positive experiences.
This information takes on special meaning during the pandemic: The researchers note that any kind of variation will help, even within a fixed routine, such as taking a reverse route through the grocery store, cooking foods from different countries every night, or a new kind of home exercise. (This week we’re trying Obé Fitness and Vibras free kids meditation classes.) Sticking to the same activities and sights day after day will likely not result in pandemic contentment.
“Our results suggest that people feel happier when they go to novel places and have a wider array of experiences,” says coauthor Catherine Hartley, an assistant professor of psychology. It’s a virtuous cycle. “The opposite is also likely true: positive feelings may drive people to seek out these rewarding experiences more frequently.”
Previous research has shown that simply switching activities across the day also correlates with happiness and feelings of stimulation—but not too frequently, such as more than once or twice an hour, which makes people feel unproductive. In short: new activities and sights literally elicit positive feelings from your mind.