Consider a thought experiment. Try to remember the best day you have ever had in your life. Now imagine you are given the choice to relive that day until you die. Would you take the deal? On paper it sounds great, but actually what made that day special was precisely its novelty. How many days would go by before what you once looked forward to became a hassle? You would start going through the motions, maybe even dreading waking up every morning. It’s kind of like little kids who wish Christmas could come every day. After about a week you would have a hard time dragging them out of bed, let alone keeping them filled with excitement and glee.
As I consider the best day thought experiment it occurs to me that fulfillment in life hinges on striking a balance between the novel and the routine, between certainty and uncertainty, between having a home base and being prepared for adventure. The reason to strike this balance is that too much uncertainty is likely to cause debilitating, paralyzing anxiety while no uncertainty at all is likely to cause unbearable boredom.
It’s funny that so much advertising is geared around offering products and services that insure certainty, in effect protecting you against uncomfortable feelings of existential anxiety, when voluntarily placing yourself in situations that provoke anxiety is the way to insure a happy life. Ask yourself this question. How many really good things have happened to you without you having put yourself out there, taking a calculated risk, facing the unknown? By now you have your favorite pastimes, favorite people, favorite foods and drinks, favorite movies and music, but once upon a time these were all unknowns.
As we grow older some of us stop searching for the novel, settling in to routinized lives that pass us by in a flash. From a neuroscientific perspective, when you stop seeking novelty and choose certainty your brain stops creating new neural pathways and allows existing ones to deteriorate since it knows you will no longer face any challenges that you can’t handle with your existing apparatus. Your brain, and with it your body, wither away.
The key is to not let yourself get complacent. We all need to feel a level of safety and have some routine in our lives to be able to function, but ceasing to put ourselves in new situations, ceasing to be open to learning new things, and ceasing to want to meet new people because of the unconscious need to protect ourselves from the anxiety cued off by uncertainty doesn’t actually protect us at all, and in fact ends up hurting us.