Neophilia: Choosing Novelty Over Routine
Have you ever wondered why some people consistently choose novelty over the safer, more routine options?
Why risk moving to a new place when the old place is not really all that bad? Why risk trying a new line of work while the old is still at least tolerable? Why take the risk of a new adventure, with all of its attendant uncertainties, when continuing the same old routine is so much safer?
These are interesting questions that perplex many people who have watched as friends or relatives embark on yet another novelty-seeking quest. Certainly I have caused many people to question my sanity as I walked away from pseud-stability time and again to try something new. It probably does not help that the reasons for pursuing novelty are often difficult to articulate for the benefit of those who prefer routine and stability.
Thus, I was intrigued when I stumbled across an article some time ago about a personality trait that some term neophilia - the need for novelty. John Tierney notes in “What’s New? Exuberance for Novelty has Benefits” that researchers have actually been studying these personality traits and have made some interesting observations.
Neophilia can be linked to a number of less-than-desirable behaviors, including addictions and criminal behavior. Paired with the right personality traits however, things like persistence and self-transcendence, novelty seeking can benefit not only the individual, but society as a whole.
Researchers have even noted a “migration gene” that is more common amongst neophiliacs. This migration gene is found most commonly in far-flung people groups.
“These genetic variations affect the brain’s regulation of dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with the processing of rewards and new stimuli,” Tierney wrote.
Genes, not surprisingly, are only part of the story though. Culture, life stages, and upbringing also impact novelty seeking.
The desire for a challenge or to escape boredom can be satisfied through adventure. Adventure, after all, is 100 percent effective as a cure for boredom.
Routine, on the other hand, all but guarantees boredom and a lack of challenge. Routine, while numbingly comfortable, precludes much continuing growth. It instead facilitates atrophy.
The novelty seeker may frequently be reacting to boredom or a lack of challenge in choosing to pursue yet another adventure.
There have always been those who could not stay in one place. They can be found in all societies throughout human history. Hunter-gatherers, explorers, sailors, and even modern vagabonds may all fall within this category. There is even a small, but growing, subculture of “vandwellers” now who choose to live in a vehicle (frequently a van) to allow them the freedom to move about as they choose.
For as long as I can remember I have been haunted by the siren song that calls me over the next mountain or beyond the far horizon. Settling is intolerable since within a short time the lure of the unknown and unseen becomes too intense and the restlessness increases until a new adventure is underway. The world is too wonderfully diverse to settle in only one place. Too much remains unseen and unexperienced.
Photographer Josef Koudelka said it well during an interview for the New York Times Lens Blog:
“For 40 years I have been traveling. I never stay in one country more than three months. Why? Because I was interested in seeing, and if I stay longer I become blind.”
It is easy to become complacent with routine. In fact, it is all but impossible not to become complacent, settled, and overly comfortable without novelty or adventure. We cease to truly see and experience that with which we are routinely familiar.
Some people simply need adventure or novelty in their life to keep things interesting. For some of those people it may even be partly genetic. Regardless of the cause, some of us have a deeply-rooted need to pursue novelty.