What blend of novelty and familiarity brings you the most joy? Find the balance that works for you.
Heather said she’d accomplished all but 5 goals on her 19 for 2019 list (yay!) and sent us her 20 for 2020 list, which was so inspiring to see. She also shared a couple of recommendations to help us with our 20 for 2020 goals.
She said that ThirdLove has the best bras ever and wrote, “Melia, for some quick make-up looks check out Thrive Causemetics. They have some great products that brighten your face in minutes. I use it all the time.” I will never not have the Brilliant Eye Brightener in my bag. Their mascara is great too.”
Melia had glanced at Thrive products in the past but hadn’t had a personal recommendation – and they have makeup tutorials and tips, too! She’s planning on ordering some products soon. They’re not cheap, but they’re cruelty-free and paraben-free, and for each product you buy, they donate to help a woman thrive.
Balancing Novelty & Familiarity
We thought this was an interesting topic to explore coming off the holiday break, when many of us visited home or other familiar destinations – or had people in town who had visited before. It raises the question of how many familiar or favorite experiences to repeat, and how many new things to try. Each of us is looking for a balance that works for us.
Research shows that we tend to prefer novelty when we want to maximize our enjoyment of certain experiences. We want to see a new movie, visit a new city, eat at a new restaurant. Novel experiences are fun and can do us a lot of good: sparking our desire to learn and explore, keeping our relationships fresh and exciting, even boosting our memory.
We’re wired to pay attention to new stimuli so we notice new threats and opportunities. Once we know that we’re safe, we start taking the familiar for granted and responding less to it, which is called habituation – like how we stop noticing the hum of a fan in the room but jump when a fire alarm goes off.
But there’s also a lot of value in revisiting familiar experiences. A recent NYT article – The Unexpected Joy of Repeat Experiences – explores our current obsession with novelty (like the FOMO we get when seeing people’s social media posts), and points out that we don’t give repeat experiences enough credit. Even the word “repetition” tends to be associated with negative emotions, unlike “novelty.”
The article cites the research of Ed O’Brien, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, who launched a series of studies that found you’re actually much more likely to enjoy a repeat experience than you think you will.
O’Brien says: “There’s a general belief that if you want to seem like an interesting, cultured person, the best thing you can do is to showcase that you’re open to new experiences. That may be true, but I think we take for granted the other value of really digging deep into one domain.”
We often feel this push and pull between the new and the familiar, and we each share how it shows up in our lives.
Melia: She mostly listens at work, so it’s instrumental when she is writing. But when she’s doing other tasks, it’s about a 75/25 split on the familiar and novel. She’ll get obsessed with an artist for a week or two and listen on loop (like Maggie Rogers, HAIM, or Kina Grannis). When she has the mental bandwidth she’ll listen to Discover Weekly on Spotify or check out the female artists that The Daily Good recommends. Listening to old favorites takes her back to a certain place and time.
Gill: She’s the same on listening to instrumental music when writing. She tries to look for new artists and playlists on Spotify but often falls back on familiar favorites. And she’ll listen to the same albums and playlists on loop if she loves them.
(A generous term for both of us most days)
Melia: Getting dressed is more of a chore than an opportunity for self-expression, so she tends to cycle through the same clothes. She would consider wearing some version of the same thing every day – inspired by Matilda Kahl, a creative director who became well-known for her work uniform of black pants and a white blouse. She doesn’t want to spend her creative energy making decisions about what to wear. Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are famous for wearing the same thing every day, and Barack Obama said, “I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”
Gill: In winter, you’ll find her wearing the same jeans and sweaters over and over – and in summer, the same sundresses and sandals. She’ll put more of an effort in when going out with Brian or friends, but she works from home and avoids video conference calls. She’d like to be more excited about fashion during the week but finds it hard to make it a priority.
Family/ Holiday Traditions
Melia: She likes doing the same things every year – baking the same cookies, hanging the same decorations, watching the same movies… But if something doesn’t happen, it’s not the end of the world.
Gill: As discussed in previous episodes, she loves annual traditions like making our great grandma’s Christmas cookies and watching holiday movies. And for family vacations, our family will often meet in NOLA, exploring different neighborhoods but returning to the same city. And Brian’s family goes back to the same lake every summer.
Melia: Since having kids, Darren and Melia travel a lot less, but they do a weeklong trip with his extended family every summer to a different location, renting a big house together and exploring the area. When Melia has gone back to cities like Paris or Barcelona, she has favorite spots she wants to visit and then wants to do new things the rest of the time – though her favorite thing to do is walk around a city and get a feel for it.
Gill: There are some places she loves visiting over and over and getting to know more deeply, often if she has lived there or nearby in the past, like Rome, New Orleans, or Paris. But usually she wants to see new places and experience new things because there’s so much to explore.
Melia: Darren loves to cook, and they both love to eat. They eat mostly the same things during the week and do food prep for lunches (a variation on spinach salad with chicken). They go to the same Mexican restaurant nearly every week; Darren has gone with his family for maybe 20 years and ordered the same thing for most of that time. He tried lots of other menu items before settling on this as his favorite, and Melia will do the same in some restaurants.
Gill: For cooking at home, she has tried and true recipes that she falls back on, especially during the week. But she does crave novelty with food and likes trying out new recipes. For restaurants, she has her favorites, especially when people are here for a short visit. But she and Brian often try new spots on their own or with local friends.
Media (Movies/TV Shows/Books)
Melia: When she was younger, she’d read the same books, and she and Gill would watch the same movies again and again, but now that’s rare. She’ll circle back to nonfiction books for reference or sometimes read them again years later for a refresher – like Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic and Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart.
Gill: She rewatched movies and reread books a lot when she was younger and wonders if it would have been the same if streaming had been an option back then. Now she rewatches a few favorite Christmas movies each year and a few beloved books she’ll reread, usually childhood faves, but usually she wants novelty.
Melia: She has so little down time that she does the same things rather than exploring new hobbies: reading, playing guitar and piano and singing, writing, and podcasting. She and I have been going to a couple of new places lately, though, and it’s been lovely to be tourists in their own town.
Gill: She tends to do the same kinds of things in her free time – reading, writing, photography, cooking, hiking, day trips. She likes the things she does now but would like to push herself to add some novelty to the mix, like checking out more museums and art exhibits in Barcelona and trying classes for things she’s interested in.
Questions to find your own balance of novelty & familiarity:
- When you go to a restaurant you’ve been to before, do you tend to order a favorite dish or try something new?
- Do you have a favorite outfit? How does it make you feel to wear it?
- How do you tend to listen to music? Listen to favorite albums on loop, or new music on shuffle?
- Do you read favorite books multiple times? Revisit books from childhood?
- When you have the opportunity to plan a vacation or a day out where you live, do you lean toward going to a new place or a favorite spot?
- What’s your experience of trying something new vs. revisiting old favorites?
1. Take a break from your favorite things to appreciate them more.
Michael Norton, Harvard Business School professor, says: “Coffee will never taste as good as it does if you quit it for a month. So it’s true that novelty is fun, but given enough of a break in between, repeat experiences regain that initial buzz.”
2. Look for new insights in repeat experiences.
Just because you’ve done something before doesn’t mean you’ve experienced all it has to offer. Search for the things you didn’t see the first time around. Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard, says there are more layers to explore in virtually every experience. The process of looking for new insights is fulfilling on its own; this is practicing mindfulness. She says: “When you’re noticing new things in any experience, neurons are firing, and that’s the way to become engaged.”
3. Add an element of novelty when learning new things.
New experiences improve our memory and the brain’s plasticity, or the ability to make connections between neurons. If you want to learn something new, Lifehacker suggests studying it after exploring a new place, going to a new setting, or even adjusting the light or temperature in the room you’re already in.
4. Find little ways to incorporate novelty into your day.
Identify a few areas of your life where you’d like to break out of your routine – like your wardrobe, your music or your relationships – and make a small change to each every day for the next week. Wear an outfit or accessory that’s been collecting dust in your closet. Make a new workout playlist. Try something new for date night or a friend hangout – go for a walk, check out a free event or exhibit, try a restaurant in a neighborhood you don’t know well.
5. Experiment to find the right mix of novelty and familiarity for you.
When you return to the same places, pick a couple of favorite destinations to revisit, and explore several new ones, as well. See what blend makes you happiest. Celebrate the holiday traditions that mean the most to you and try out one you’d consider adopting. Pick one day a week to break out of your routine in what you wear, what you eat, or how you spend your leisure time.
Get It Together / Got It Together
We each share something that’s going well for us at the moment and something else we’d like to work on. This time, we share a couple of updates on how our 20 for 2020 lists are going so far.
Gill’s Get It Together: Restart and keep a budget
Gill’s Got It Together: Find a new tutor and restart weekly Spanish lessons
Melia Get It Together: Avery’s sleep. When she made her 20 for 2020 goal of managing sugar and screen time, which influence the kids’ level of sass. she’d forgotten a major ingredient: sleep.
Melia Got It Together: Starting a love tank, or marble jars – cutting up pieces of paper that she writes on before bed each night, recording one way she connected with each person in her family and herself
Melia unofficial goal borrowed from Gill’s list: Eight Dates from John Gottman & co.! Have gone on 2 so far and LOVE the book and the process.
Get In Touch
You know that we love your feedback! Tell us how you balance novelty with familiarity in a way that makes you happy. Email us at podcast[at]semitogether.com, or send us a voice memo. You can also leave a comment on Facebook or Instagram.
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- Thrive Causemetics
- The New York Times: The Unexpected Joy of Repeat Experiences
- Ed O’Brien’s study: Enjoy It Again: Repeat Experiences Are Less Repetitive Than People Think
- Lifehacker: Novelty and the Brain: Why New Things Make Us Feel So Good
- Trends in Neurosciences: Novelty and Dopaminergic Modulation of Memory Persistence: A Tale of Two Systems
- Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
- When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron
- Eight Dates by John Gottman, Julie Schwartz Gottman, Doug Abrams, and Rachel Carlton Abrams
- Songs We’re Loving Right Now playlist
- Melia & Gill’s Mood-Shifting Music playlist
- Personal Capital