Kelly Spencer - Happy Healthy YOU
(A wellness column by Kelly Spencer: writer, life coach, yoga & meditation teacher, holistic healer and a mindful life enthusiast!)
Friday night, my girl friend Jen and I head over to Heather's, a mutual friend's house, for some girl time.
Heather sent a message earlier, “let me know when you arrive, and I will open the garage door.”
We pull in the driveway, I text “here” and the garage opens.
“I have a present for you and we are going to play a game,” Heather exclaims excitedly upon our arrival. “You have to find the present playing hot and cold.” Intrigued with anticipation of what my friend may be giving me I took a small step to left. “Colder.” I took some steps forward. “Warmer.”
The hot-cold game led me to the hallway, down the stairs and into the rec room.
“It’s hidden, and you have to find it.” I looked in bags and all around, as I walked towards the end of the room I saw a crawl space under the stairs, I thought for sure that is where my present will be.
I saw it. I screamed. I may have even dropped a swear word or two.
Crunched down in the darkness of the cubby hole behind the stairs, was my sweet friend Kimmy that had moved to Newfoundland in January.
After loads of laughs and hugs, they told me they already surprised our other good friend Kathy earlier that day. Heather asked Kathy to help her move a large wooden box, which Kimmy was hiding in.
Turns out, the surprise of our friend from the East coast was more beneficial that just a good laugh with friends.
Why do unexpected pleasures in life mean so much?
Apparently, the brain's pleasure centres are more "turned on" when we experience unpredictable pleasant things, compared to expected pleasant events, according to a study of the brain by Emory University and Baylor College of Medicine researchers.
The study which was published this past spring in the Journal of Neuroscience, used Magnetic Resonance Imaging brain scans to measure changes in human brain activity in response to a sequence of pleasurable stimuli.
They used a computer-controlled device to squirt fruit juice or water into the mouths of 25 research participants. The patterns of the squirting were either predictable or unpredictable.
The researchers found that the MRI scans showed a brain area called the nucleus accumbens (also known as the “pleasure centre” in the brain) to be much more active when the subjects received unpredictable patterns of juice and water.
"This means that the brain finds unexpected pleasure more rewarding that expected ones..." said Dr. Gregory Berns, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Emory and Dr. Read Montague, associate professor of neuroscience at Baylor, the authors of the study.
If variety is the spice of life, shouldn’t we all be trying to spice things up with more unexpected surprises?
Surprising each other isn’t just for friends, but can keep a romantic relationship from becoming stale.
"Romantic relationships need the perfect balance of surprise and predictability," said Tania Luna, co-author of Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected. "While a sense of safety and comfort is important to release oxytocin (the cuddle chemical) and build trust, too much predictability is a romance killer. Surprise, mystery, and anticipation boost our dopamine levels, which triggers attraction and excitement."
Haven’t you ever noticed how running into someone by chance that you really care about feels so good? Or how amazing it feels to receive a small note of gratitude or a random act of kindness? Doesn’t receiving flowers or chocolates as a surprise gift bring more joy and excitement than buying them yourself?
This is because being surprised activates the pleasure centres in our brain and gives us a nice shot of dopamine, which makes experiences more enjoyable.
"Surprise is the ultimate feedback mechanism," said LeeAnn Renninger, author and surprise expert. "It teaches us that we were wrong. Things didn't go as we expected."
Surprise is your brain's way of alerting you to pay attention, which in turn activates curiosity, excitement, and wonder - key elements to absorbing information.
“Surprise also builds new neural pathways in our brains, leading us to think more flexibly and creatively," she said.
Functionally Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI) research shows that we process new stimuli differently than stimuli we've seen just one other time. In fact, when new stimuli are involved, our brain releases more dopamine. Dopamine, a chemical that provides us with feelings of pleasure and elevates our emotional mood when released. By inviting more surprise into your life on a regular basis you are inviting in more good moods.
“All of these factors help our mental health, even reducing depression. When it comes to depression, surprise has a way of interrupting unhealthy rumination patterns, opening the door to new thoughts and behaviors," said Luna.
Another study from University of California, found that those people who experience more awe in their life - a type of surprise experienced when we find something impressive or powerful - may be healthier. Specifically, the researchers found that the "awe" group had lower levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6), a chemical that promotes inflammation, in their bodies.
So, mix it up in your world with lovers, friends, co-workers and whoever. Start surprising people more. Pay for the coffee of the stranger in line behind you, go see something new and full of awe or surprise a friend. Surprise is good for our emotional and physical health, assisting us to increase cognitive capacity, feel happier and decrease causes of inflammation in the body.
Obviously, Kathy and I would have been equally happy to know that Kimmy was coming home for a visit, but did the surprise make it that much better? We think so.
NOTE: A correction from last week's article, Will Cole is not associated with Naked in Motion, sorry for any confusion.
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