Dare to be different

Aruna Sankaranarayanan

The most mundane or tedious task can be invigorating, if done differently

Do you always get up from one side of your bed? Well, try getting up from the other side tomorrow. If you usually brush your teeth with your right hand, try brushing with your left, for a change. If you have oats for breakfast on most days, eat a dosa or an ootapam instead. When you ride to college, take a different route. Instead of listening to your favourite radio channel, switch to a channel in another language.

You probably got the point. Try something different. Just about anything, as long as you inject variety and unpredictability into your life. While routines may make us more efficient, we need to trade efficiency for variation, at least once in a while. Why?

This is because, research has found that being open, in a broad sense, to experiences has many benefits. In fact, openness to experience is one of the Big Five personality traits that distinguishes people. Psychologist Art Markman defines openness as, “The degree to which a person is willing to consider new ideas and opportunities.” It reflects the extent to which you are willing to step outside your comfort zone to try novel ideas and experiences.

Open people

According to psychologist Luke Smillie, open people are generally more curious and creative and devour ‘culture’ in the form of books, movies, art, music and dance. They like to seek out new encounters and enjoy travelling to unfamiliar places. In contrast, less open people prefer more tried-and-tested practices and like to follow predictable routines.

In an oft-cited study by Robert McCrae, open people displayed more divergent thinking, which involves thinking of multiple solutions to a problem and is one of the hallmarks of creativity. For example, how many uses can you think of, for a toothbrush? Typical answers involve using it as a cleaning or mixing implement or perhaps for spray painting. Open people are likely to think of unusual responses like using it as a stick to support plants, to comb eyebrows or to make decorative patterns while icing cakes.

Interestingly, Smillie also writes that open people are more prone to feeling “mixed emotions” or the “simultaneous experience of contrasting feeling states.” Thus, on graduation day, you may be excited that you are embarking on a new career path while feeling a tinge of sadness for leaving your alma mater.

However, like most psychological traits, openness also has its downsides. In a paper published in 2012, in Scientific Research , Ronnie McGhee and colleagues found that openness to experience was correlated to high levels of risk-taking in a laboratory task in pre-adolescents. And, in the real world, risk-taking has real consequences. Rash driving, drug and alcohol usage and unprotected sexual experimentation may all be novel and exciting experiences at first. But, the repercussions of these behaviours suggest that we should exercise prudence before indulging in them.

That said, most other experiences are fairly benign. While we should always be careful, we should not let caution stymie our interactions with the world. More importantly, we shouldn’t follow routines on auto pilot all the time. Every now and then, we should question what we do. Even the most mundane or tedious task can invigorate us if done differently. If you detest cooking, invite a friend and bake a cake together. If you always put off cleaning your cupboard, go out and buy some snazzy wrapping paper to line your drawers. Even a small change can spur you to do more.

The author is Director, PRAYATNA. arunasankara@gmail.com

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