A new studyTrusted Source published on May 18 in the journal Nature Neuroscience has revealed a link between our physical environment and how happy we feel.
“Our work suggests that experiencing new and diverse experiences on a daily basis is linked to positive emotions,” said study co-author Aaron Heller, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
“We feel happier when we have variety in our daily routines and, in turn, we are more likely to seek out novel experiences when we are in a more positive mood,” he said.
However, the authors acknowledge that it can be difficult to put this information into action during the COVID-19 pandemic, when people may be staying home most of the time. What can we learn from this study that will help us cope with the isolation of physical distancing, and to feel more upbeat about our circumstances?
About the study
The researchers’ goal in conducting the study was to learn about whether a diversity of daily experiences leads to a more positive emotional state.
To investigate this question, they did GPS tracking of the study participants in New York and Miami for a period of 3 to 4 months. The study participants were asked via text messaging to report about whether they felt positive or negative emotions during this time. The researchers found that on days when people had more variation in their location, they reported feeling positive emotions like “attentive,” “excited,” “happy,” “relaxed,” and/or “strong.”
The researchers then wanted to see whether this association between variability in location and emotion would be in some way connected to activity within the brains of these individuals. To check for a connection, they had about half of the study participants come back to the lab and undergo MRI scans. An MRI scan uses a strong magnetic field, radio waves, and a computer to take pictures inside the body. A special type of MRI scan called fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) can be used to observe changes in blood flow within the brain to determine which areas are active during certain activities. The research team found that those who had the strongest link between diverse experiences and positive feelings also had a stronger connection between brain activity in the hippocampus and the striatum.
According to study co-author Catherine Hartley, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at New York University, the hippocampus is a region of the brain that’s “centrally involved in spatial navigation and memory formation, but is also sensitive to the novelty of spatial environments.”
The striatum is involved in “learning what actions and elements of our environment are rewarding,” she added. Heller further explains that while they didn’t find more activity in these regions, they did find a connectivity between these areas that was linked to the degree to which exploration of one’s environment was associated with a day-to-day positive mood. This brain connection between the hippocampus and striatum is important for assigning value to different locations, Heller says.
According to Heller, this suggests that individual differences in engagement of this brain circuit might influence the degree to which novelty and diversity in one’s environment is experienced as being rewarding.
This might, in turn, promote more exploration or seeking of new experiences. How to put the study results to use during the COVID-19 pandemic
Even though it may be more difficult to put these findings to use while physical distancing is going on, Hartley says it’s still possible to create diversity in our experiences.
“Exploring could mean taking a new path when we go for a walk, or introducing variety in what you read or watch, or who you’re in touch with today,” she suggested. While our study examined benefits associated with novel experiences linked to physical locations, our work suggests that exposing yourself to sights, sounds, and experiences that you haven’t had recently might similarly be rewarding,” Hartley said.
James M. Hyman, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who wasn’t involved in the study, agrees with Hartley.
“There are plenty of reasons to think that other types of novelty might also have similar effects. So, read new books, watch new shows, listen to new music, challenge yourself to learn, and do new things,” Hyman revealed.
“We know the more you do these things day in and day out, your hippocampus and ventral striatum should become more strongly connected, and as a bonus you’ll feel happier. We are in a time of unprecedented challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic, but in some ways, this is the best time for trying new things,” Hyman further explained. Many are not able to work or go to school or really to engage in any of their usual activities. This presents us with a great opportunity to experience novel things,” he continued.
“Get out and walk to new places in your neighborhood. Drive and hike on new paths. Explore,” Hyman said.
The bottom line
Research suggests that new and diverse experiences can lead to greater happiness. However, during a pandemic, when we’re practicing physical distancing and remaining home much of the time, it can be difficult to move around and seek out new experiences. Experts say, though, that there may be other ways we can achieve the same benefits of unique and varied experiences. They suggest that we do new things, whether that means getting out and going to a new place or remaining at home and trying something you’ve never done before.
Breaking out of your usual routine, whether that involves a physical change of location or a mental one, can create novelty and enhance the brain circuitry that links new experiences with feelings of happiness. A psychologist, Olubunmi Peters said that the more people incorporate physical activities into their lifestyle even though they are safe at home can improve the mood and lift spirits.
According to her, exercising doesn’t have to be strenuous or intense. An exercise as simple as talking a walk or climbing the stairs can help people stay positive at this dark time.