Being Open to New Experiences

posted in: Aging, Midlife, Personal Essay | 1

I came across an article in The Creativity Post which asks “What Happens When People Are Intentionally More Open to New Experiences?” This post is an interesting follow-up to the Psychology Today article about Six Ways Traveling Can Boost Your Mental Health that I referred to in my post about our trip to Montreal.

The Psychology Today article, by Kristen Fuller, M.D., points out the many benefits of travel including how it enhances creativity. She notes that

Creativity is directly related to neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life), which means our brains are sensitive to change, influenced by new environments and experiences. By changing our environment we can literally form new neuronal pathways enhancing our creativity.

Similarly, the article in The Creativity Post, by Scott Barry Kaufman, points to the many possible benefits of being open to new experiences including creativity, enjoyment of imagination and mind-wandering, tendency to seek out and enjoy cognitive stimulation, high tolerance for ambiguity, low need for closure, personal growth, appreciation of beauty and authenticity, among other things.

Although my life hasn’t exactly been some grand adventure, I have begun to realize that I am more of a novelty seeker than I usually give my self credit for. Not in any dramatic ways but in numerous small ways.

Although we have some favorite places that we return to, Holly and I also really enjoy trying new restaurants. We love places that frequently change their menus. And we’re always cooking new things at home.

I have wide ranging taste in movies and am always looking for movies that are unlike movies I’ve seen before. For me, that is one of the great thrill of going to film festivals. During a festival, I often see movies that I know nothing about beforehand hoping to be surprised. The same can be said about my reading habits.

I also have changed jobs several times often feeling the need for some new experience. If it weren’t for the great benefits, I may have even switched careers at some point. Who knows?

Although I have not been a world traveler (yet), I have visited a lot of cities in North America and always get a thrill out of going someplace new.

After spending the first 39 years of my life in Philadelphia, I moved to Las Vegas. Yes, after four years there, I did move back to Philadelphia but in entirely new and much better circumstances after escaping an unhealthy relationship and finding my perfect partner. OK, this one might be dramatic.

In the past few years, I’ve indulged my interests in photography and drawing.

I implicitly understood some of these benefits or else I would not have engaged with the things I mentioned in the way I have, but it’s validating to learn that there is some evidence of what possibly benefits might be. It’s encouraging, especially as I get older.

Despite the list of potential benefits, the research presented in the Kaufman article points out that people need to want to be open to new experiences. It can’t be forced. The benefits need to be a motivating factor. He hopes that future researchers

measure the extent to which people scoring low on certain personality traits have the motivation to improve those levels. Brent Roberts and his colleagues have found that most people do want to be more open to new experiences, but that’s certainly not everyone. I would be interested to see whether the openness-related activities have an effect particularly on those low open people who do wish to change their personality…We do know that personality change is possible, but you have to want to change, and be willing to put in the hard work to repeatedly change your behaviors and habits. The good news, however, is that the latest science of personality suggests that with enough adjustments your patterns over time, you can fundamentally change who you are.

A complicating factor for those of us in their midlife is the fact that people tend to grow risk averse with age making openness to new experiences more difficult. Unfortunately, there may be a biological component involved. Other research shows that cognitive ability plays a role in both risk aversion and patience.

That might sound a bit grim, but, luckily, there is also a great deal of research about how to protect the brain from many of these ill effects including a recent article in the New York Times about the benefits of exercise in terms of lessening the effects of Alzheimer’s and in overall brain health.

  1. Dennis

    I surprised myself when I didn’t hesitate to accept your invitation to accompany you and Holly to Montreal over Thanksgiving. That’s not like me, but I must have intuitively known it would be a good thing, and it certainly was. As you know, I am at a point where I am seeking changes in my life but, as you pointed out, they don’t have to be dramatic. Perhaps I will take a different route to work on Monday. 😉

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