How to answer “So what have you been up to?”
The benefits of seeking out novel situations in life have been known for a while, and if you want to dive into the brain’s chemical response to novelty (and you just assume that Gregory Berns M.D., Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Neuroeconomics at Emory University, knows his shit) I suggest you read the intro, last page of each chapter, and the conclusion of Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment. By all means read the whole thing if you want to give yourself an intellectual high five, but to be honest it’s a lot of book for a relatively simple conclusion.
And that is that we are hard-wired for novelty and when we seek it out we’re satisfied. It’s all about the interaction of dopamine, the hormone secreted in the brain in anticipation of pleasure, and cortisol, the chemical released when we are under stress, that produces the feelings people associate with satisfaction. What this means is that it’s not just pleasure or the anticipation of pleasure that triggers the chemicals in our brains, it’s the anticipation of something happening – positive or negative – that ‘satisfies’ us. So when we come across novel situations our brain is anticipating something different happening and it releases dopamine and cortisol. So it all comes down to just doing stuff.
“So what have you been up to, handsome?”
Ah, the question that has plagued me my whole adult life. I think it plagues anyone who a) didn’t get married recently, b) doesn’t skydive naked for a living or c) who isn’t Richard Branson. For such a common pillar of modern conversation this question never fails to deflate participants and derail any earned momentum. The problem is people don’t think they have good enough stories — and if they do they can rarely remember them on the spot— and they basically don’t want to come across as losers. Not to mention it makes the rest of the conversation easy. “Oh you went turtle stabbing at zero gravity? That must be a strain on your forearms! Let’s talk about that forever and make love under the moonlight!”. Then all you have to do is sit back in your fancy sunnies and flex your barb-wire tattooed biceps and accept all the adulation coming your way.
So my theory is that people walk around with their recent interesting escapades floating around their heads and if they’ve been up to cool stuff they are internally at peace because they know they can handle any conversations with ease; you’re guaranteed to be the coolest person in the conversation. Which is really all that any of us want in life. This theory came to me when I was deeply, desperately hungover one day a few years ago. I was feeling sick in the stomach and couldn’t digest more than 5 bites of food in a sitting, but yet as I walked through the city on that lovely Spring day I felt wonderful. Your senses are heightened when you’re hungover; you (I) feel the cool breeze rush straight through your skin and into your hot blood, a dull energy-saving LED lightbulb 20 metres away assaults your eyes like a swab of mace, and you would have medieval sex with your a lampshade if you caught it from the right angle.
It’s my contention that this heightening of the senses extends to the social part of your brain too. If you’ve had a big night out the night before then you’ve bought yourself some time. Some time to relax on this Earth knowing that you’ve fulfilled your human obligations to be social for the time being, you’ve done your bit as a functioning member of society and you’ll be excused for not giving a shit for the next 24 hours or so. It’s like that feeling after you’ve gone for a run, you feel great because you’ve made progress and it’s the longest possible time before your next run. The same goes for social occasions. Tony Robbins (who I think gets a bad rap btw) says “Life is progress”. If you’re making progress in areas of your life you’re doing OK. You’ve made progress in your social life and now you know that you don’t have to be social for the longest socially-acceptable amount of time.
So what does all this have to do with novelty? A night out is a carnival of novel experiences; you’ve had new conversations with possibly new people who have done new things, all in new location filled with different strangers in different weather. It’s all novelty. If you’re like me and have to really work hard to put yourself in novel situations, a night out is the easiest way to do it. I’ll go to different suburbs and different cafes to do my writing but that’s about it for me, it takes a lot of effort to proactively think of interesting new experiences (especially on an empty stomach), even though I intellectually know it will save my life.
Save my life, you say?
There’s a body of research that shows that novelty-seeking activities may lower chances of developing Alzheimer’s:
The odds of AD (Alzheimers Disease) were lower among those who more often participated in activities involving exchange of ideas and were lower yet for those who more frequently participated in novelty-seeking activities. We conclude that participation in a variety of mental activities across the life span may lower one’s chances of developing AD.
And when you look at who generally contracts the disease – older women – it makes for interesting reading. Far be it from me to go ahead and make medical diagnoses with no medical training but when you think about how the recent historical role of women has been to look after the house and family in a vanilla suburb and support the man, ie a lifestyle with very little exposure to novelty, it supports the findings of the research. My grandma had Alzheimer’s and for most of her life her day consisted of cleaning the house and preparing dinner all afternoon, and washing the dishes after dinner in lieu of dessert. There’s no novelty and nothing interesting for her to talk about. Husbands ran into different people and different situations at work so if he wasn’t too tired he and his wife would talk about that. It’s really no wonder the neural pathways of older women in this situation fuse into well-worn highways of monotony.
There’s also evidence suggesting that men who retire later tend to live longer:
Evidence for this hypothesis can be inferred from the fact that men retiring at age 62 and 3 months to age 62 and 11 months, age 63, and age 64 all experience greater mortality risk than men retiring at age 65 or older.
I think it’s safe to assume that the men who retire early would not exactly be riding motorbikes or going bungee-jumping like the old codgers you see on the life insurance ads. He’d be hanging around home twiddling his thumbs, annoying his wife and purposefully breaking things so he can fix them.
You’ve clocked life when you can comfortably answer “So what have you been up to, handsome?”