Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth nutrition, fitness and adventure courses, and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+..
We are creatures of habit. More than likely, you have regular time set aside in your week to move your body, be it a daily walk or a twice-weekly home practice fueled by YouTube. To be sure, routines can be powerful. They provide predictability when life seems uncertain, structure when you feel lost, and a clear path forward when motivation goes missing. But new research published in Nature Neuroscience shows that if you really want to know how to feel happy, the real key may be switching up the tried and true.
“The saying, ‘Variety is the spice of life,’ is a folksy way of capturing exactly what we found,” says Catherine Hartley, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at New York University and senior author of the study. Variation in the places we go from day to day is linked to how happy we feel, she says.
Hartley and other researchers designed a study that tracked subjects’ movement via GPS. Participants reflected on how they felt at regular intervals. Folks whose days took them to new places responded more favorably, self-reporting higher levels of happiness. The results indicate a positive correlation between novel experiences and wellbeing.
You don’t have to go to some far-flung country to discover the benefits of newness. Trying a new coffee shop or walking in an unfamiliar neighborhood registers in your brain as a fresh experience. Choose a different park for your outdoor practice or take a short drive to explore someplace new. The key to a happy balance is finding equilibrium between a comforting routine and the spark of novelty.
Try this simple walking meditation from Ashley Turner, a licensed psychotherapist and longtime yoga teacher, to help you on your way to happier-feeling trails.
- Hold your hands behind your back or in front of your hips, with one hand clasping the opposite wrist (if your shoulders allow). The idea is to eliminate fiddling or other distractions and add an element of discipline or physical containment, allowing you to come more fully into presence.
- Walk normally, inhaling and exhaling each time you step forward with your right foot. In slowing down your breath, you invite your brain to settle into an alpha state, the same as achieved in meditation.
- As you fall into the rhythm created by your steps and breath, feel yourself in space. Notice the air on your skin, the breath in your lungs, the movement of your legs, or your rising temperature beneath the warmth of the sun.
- Tune into your gratitude for having a body—one that moves however yours does, that feels and reacts to sensations—and for having the inclination to seek a gratitude practice at all. Be grateful that you are in devotion to your physical being.
If walking isn’t an option for you, sit or lie down in a comfortable position in a new place, and follow the steps above for slowing the breath, feeling your body in space, and expressing gratitude.