How Shaking Up Your Routine, Even in Small Ways, Can Boost Your Mood

Trying out a new running route or changing up your usual playlist can make a difference.

For many,  the coronavirus has created a kind of “what day is it?” mood that can make you both bored and bummed out. But there’s a way to get a lift in your schedule while still staying safe: vary your routine.

Research published in the journal Nature Neuroscience concluded that new and diverse experiences are linked to higher levels of happiness—and that, in turn, leads to more brain activity.

Researchers looked at 132 people between the ages of 18 and 31, living in either New York or Miami. The participants were tracked continuously for three to four months, and were sent short questionnaires at random times every other day to assess their emotional states.

They found that on days when people had more variability in their physical location, such as visiting more places or going somewhere new, their assessments were positive, with words like “relaxed,” “happy,” “excited,” and “attentive.”

To determine the effect on brain activity, about half of the subjects agreed to return to a laboratory for an MRI scan. The neuroimaging found that those who had the most exposure to diverse experiences and the strongest positive feelings had more brain activity in the hippocampus and striatum—the regions of the brain associated with processing new experiences and feeling a sense of reward.

“Our work suggests that new and diverse experiences are linked to positive emotions, and the engagement of this brain circuit might promote greater desire to explore even more,” study coauthor Aaron Heller, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at the University of Miami, told Runner’s World. “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.”

Although the study was done in pre-pandemic days, Heller said it is possible to attain the same results without visiting new places, and that you can prompt the same brain effects even at home or when you go outside to exercise.

“Our ability to move around physically is limited by social distancing, but it’s still possible to create diversity in the experiences that are in your control,” he said. “Exploring could mean taking a new path when you go for a run or introducing variety in what you read or watch, or who you’re in touch with today.”

Even playing music you haven’t heard in a while or catching up with an old friend could be a way to freshen up your routine, he added.

“While our study examined benefits associated with novel experiences linked to physical locations, our work suggests that exposing yourself to sights, sounds, and experiences you haven’t had recently might similarly be rewarding,” he said.

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