Updated: Apr 1
Control freaks beware: The perfectly planned experiences don’t make us the happiest; the surprising ones do. The brain loves surprises!
Do you love surprises or do you hate them? A friend of mine loves the element of surprise – anything from a little note tucked into his briefcase or a spontaneous trip to Paris. Another friend of mine avoids surprises at all costs.
By design, surprises catch us off guard. we’re not prepared; we’re not in control. For many people, that is terribly uncomfortable. It's easier to stay safely in the comfort zone. If you prefer the predictability of life, here is a little news you can use: Your brain LOVES surprises!
Neuroscientists have discovered that surprise is one of the most powerful human emotions. As it turns out, the brain’s pleasure center (or the nucleus accumbens) lights up like a Christmas tree when you experience something that you didn’t expect. Not only do you get a nice boost of dopamine, the brain releases noradrenaline – the neurotransmitter responsible for focus and concentration. Think of it as the reset button for the brain. It actually stops all of the other brain activity to let you find meaning in the surprise.
Recent brain-based research shows that novelty or surprise intensifies our emotions by about 400 percent.
This concept of “emotional intensification” explains why receiving flowers on your birthday is nice, but receiving “just because” flowers on some random Tuesday feels so much different. The gift is the same in both cases, but they elicit a much more intense response when you are surprised with them.
Conversely, bad news feels much worse when we are surprised by it. Consider two people who are fired. One loses his job because the company has been sold and redundancies were eliminated. Another loses his job without warning. The news is the same for both people, but being fired with no warning is emotionally more devastating because of the surprise element.
Perhaps the best part of surprises is that they don’t have to be huge to make a huge impact. The unexpected thing – a random act of kindness, a hand-written thank you note from a colleague, or something simple that makes you laugh out loud – can create positive chemical changes that reset your brain, create new neural pathways that make you a little smarter, and make you happier.
Control freaks beware: The perfectly planned experiences don’t make us the happiest; the surprising ones do.
Here is one more little surprise nugget for you: emotional contagion. Because we’re social creatures, we tend to “catch” the emotional states of those around us. Interacting with people who are stressed and anxious significantly impacts your own mental state and releases stress hormones in your brain. Likewise, when you’re around positive, happy people, your brain releases the happy chemicals like oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine.
When you orchestrate a surprise for another person and create a positive chemical reaction in their brain, you also impact the brains of everyone around that person. That small act of kindness could just generate a chain reaction you may never know about!
Whether love surprises or hate them, it’s not that complicated to make them work for you and your brain. Here are four ways to both inspire and embrace surprise:
Practice of the art of vulnerability.
Vulnerability is sexy. Research has shown that practicing vulnerability is endearing and incredibly powerful in helping us connect with others. Those connections give us purpose and meaning. Nurturing your own sense of vulnerability is one way to allow life to surprise you.
Curiosity opens your brain to the notion that you’re okay with not knowing. It’s the cornerstone of learning and discovery, and it requires you to let go of control and embrace unpredictability.
Doing the unexpected is a great way to lead to new insights, new perspectives, and “a-ha” moments. Most of us tend to be creatures of habit, so it takes intentional practice to break away from the comfortable places and spaces.
Surprise and delight people around you.
Look for little ways to make someone else smile. A kind unexpected act or gesture will give you both a dopamine boost. Something as simple as a handwritten note of appreciation or a cookie from your morning Starbucks run can make someone's whole day look differently... and yours, too!
So take a minute today to figure out a way to surprise someone in your corner of the world. A quick note, a reason to laugh, or an invitation to lunch… how delicious to know that small surprise will light up someone’s pleasure center!