It is possible that moving around the city contributes to our happiness.
The COVID-19 pandemic has given us enough to stress about — from the first time we came face-to-face with information about the novel coronavirus, about which we barely had information. Self-isolation, physical distancing and government-ordered lockdowns have been the buzzwords for months now. We have moved into a work-from-home set-up. Schools and colleges have pivoted to online modes of education. We have revisited the idea of socialisation by having ‘Zoom parties’.
Despite all our attempts to retain a certain semblance of control on our lives and routines, the psychological impact of the pandemic — and the sheer uncertainty it has brought along with it — cannot be discounted. For people living with psychosocial disabilities, this time presents a particularly difficult challenge. Some of their triggers can intensify and symptoms can aggravate. Even in general, people are finding it hard to cope. Social media is inundated with memes, quips and viral tweets about all days have rolled into one, how it is difficult to differentiate one day from another. The hopelessness associated with this monotony might have an explanation after all.
Happiness and a change of routine
In a recent Nature Neuroscience paper, the researchers investigated a simple question. Is diversity in humans’ daily experiences associated with more positive emotional states or happiness? The research was conducted prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. But, its findings hold succinct relevance for the current times, when mobility is constrained (and rightfully so). Experiential diversity — what we would call a ‘change of scenery’ — has a positive correlation with our sense of wellbeing.
“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,” explains Catherine Hartley, an assistant professor in New York University’s Department of Psychology and one of the paper’s co-authors.
In order to reach these findings, the researchers first conducted GPS tracking of participants for 3-4 months. They recorded the participants’ emotional state through a text message report. The participants would share if they felt positive or negative on a day. The findings from this round showed that when people had more variability in their physical location — meaning when they visited more locations on a particular day, they described their state of being through positive labels and associations like “happy,” “excited,” “strong,” “relaxed,” and/or “attentive.” To determine if the physical/geographic exploration and positive moods had a connection to brain activity, they conducted another exercise consisting of MRI scans. Brain activity confirmed the impact of these positive moods on the regions of the brain that process novelty and reward.
What came first: Positive emotions or novel experiences?
An interesting takeaway from the study is that our subjective sense of wellbeing and the diversity and novelty of experiences — both seem to share a reciprocal relation. We are inclined to seek rewarding and exciting experiences due to positive feelings. In turn, positive feelings arise due to engaging in such experiences.
In fact, the researchers note that even small changes in our physical or mental routine can be as exhilarating. These could include doing yoga at home, heading out for a stroll, taking a different route to the store, engaging in agile indoor sports, trying your hands at a new dance class. That our happiness is tied to routine changes that can be implemented easily is good news for us, as we abide by the rules of physical distancing in lockdown. The psychological toll that isolation and monotony can take is not be discounted, therefore.