The Experiences That Make People Happiest

We may be creatures of habit but research suggests that the best way to boost our everyday happiness is to shake up our routine. According to a study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, we feel happier when we have more variety in our daily lives. The researchers found that regularly going to novel places and having a wider array of experiences reliably boosts positive emotions.

Previous research has shown that rodents raised in “enriched environments” — environments where they are exposed to novel and diverse experiences — are more playful, relate better to fellow rodents, learn better, and demonstrate greater resilience to stress. As the study in Nature Neuroscience shows, the same principle seems to hold true for human beings.

Using GPS, the researchers tracked participants’ daily movement for 3 to 4 months. Each individual’s “roaming entropy” — their level of exploration — was quantified using the location data. Those with low roaming entropy stayed close to home. Those with high roaming entropy were more intrepid, frequently venturing beyond their neighborhood and exposed to novel situations. On days when participants had higher roaming entropy, they reported more positive emotions such as “happy,” “excited,” “strong,” and “relaxed.”

Our results suggest that people feel happier when they have more variety in their daily routines—when they go to novel places and have a wider array of experiences,” explained Catherine Hartley, an assistant professor in New York University’s Department of Psychology and one of the paper’s co-authors.

The benefits of shaking things up linger — those who spent time in different locations and engaged in varied experiences on one day also felt more upbeat the following day.

Low roaming entropy may partially explain why lockdown was so challenging. It may also account for why some people find working from home to be draining or devitalizing. Being locked into a routine that limits exposure to new places, people, or things can take a toll. That said, fresh and diverse experiences can be had without venturing too far. Biking across town, visiting a museum, walking a different path, or trying a new skill are all ways to lean into the unfamiliar. Exploring the unknown has a powerful effect on mood. Take advantage of it. No need to become an intrepid explorer or climb Mount Everest. Just a little variety is enough to give you a boost.

Patients often tell me, “I am who I am.” I remind them that they are who they chose to be.

Bottom Line: As tempting as it is to retreat, remember that the most uplifting moments of the day come from venturing out into the world.


I wish you all the best,

Dr. Samantha Boardman