It’s interesting that in a society fixated on adventure and excitement, so many of us choose to lead lives defined by deeply entrenched routines.
I suspect our fixation on vicarious thrill rides is fueled, in part, by our own real-life tendency toward mindless repetition. Day in, day out, we follow the same old schedules, eat the same old foods, do all the same old activities, have the same old conversations and think the same old thoughts.
Do we love watching white-knuckle sports events and drama-filled reality-TV shows because our own lives have become almost painfully predictable? Is it possible that our attraction to caffeine-and-sugar-packed refreshments has something to do with our struggle to keep from boring ourselves to death?
It’s not that I’m knocking routine. After all, we’ve developed many of our routines in the service of good common sense. Routines provide structure to our lives and give us the stability we need to support grander experiments.
The trouble is, once we get comfortable in our habitual patterns, we may fail to notice when they have outworn their useful purpose, or when new alternatives might serve us better. We may not realize that some of our routines have become ruts.
It’s easy to come home and watch TV every night. It’s easy to do the same workout for months or years on end. It’s easy to play out the same predictable roles and responsibilities at work and home.
But eventually, our synapses and souls get weary of these mundane patterns. And once they get bored enough to begin nodding off, our perceptions get narrower. Our dreams and ideas become smaller. Our minds become more rigid than they were meant to be.
Conversely, brain science demonstrates that actively embracing new experiences and challenges can help us forge new synaptic connections throughout our lifetimes. Developing these new neural networks allows us to think more effectively, flexibly and creatively. And while Alzheimer’s research is still emerging, it’s thought that exercising our minds in this way may support us in staying mentally sharp as we age.
Exploring new ideas and experiences helps open our hearts and minds to new paradigms — new ways of seeing. And the great thing is, once you’ve encountered a second way of seeing, you’re more likely to entertain the possibility of a third and fourth way, too.All of this makes for a richer, more rewarding life experience.
Searching out new experiences isn’t always convenient or comfortable. But I think it is eminently worthwhile. And it doesn’t necessarily have to involve a lot of time or risk.
What might happen if, say, you chose to listen at a time you’d normally be inclined to talk? What might happen if you chose to show up early for an obligation to which you normally arrive a little late? What’s one automatic, mundane choice you’d be willing to give up experimentally — if even just for a single day or night?
The spirit of exploration is something that resides not outside of us, but within us, in our attitudes and perceptions. We can cultivate it by exposing ourselves to new experiences, meeting new people, learning new skills, visiting new places, or simply by giving ourselves permission to veer from our own well-worn, habitual paths.
This month, I invite you to consciously consider what areas of your life might be calling for exploration. Once a week, pick at least one routine and mix it up. You might make a healthy dish you’ve never tried, take an exercise class you’ve never taken, follow a path you’ve never explored, or engage your partner or family in an activity you’ve never experienced together.
Spend some time with a new person, or make an effort to understand an unfamiliar point of view. Do something that makes you just a little bit uncomfortable — and that renders you a little more awake.
Stretching in these small ways prepares us to take wider leaps. From there, it becomes easier to heed the call of the bigger adventures and opportunities that present themselves in our lives. It also becomes easier to rise to our highest callings, most of which lie beyond the threshold of familiarity.
As 20th-century essayist Wilferd A. Peterson advised: “Explore your mind, discover yourself, then give the best that is in you to your age and to your world. There are heroic possibilities waiting to be discovered in every person.”
Here’s to all the exhilarating possibilities that await you.