Resources for Recovering Resilience: Change and Predictability – Both Essential for the Good Life

[One more example of the upside of the dark side, from Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener’s fascinating study of the same title (see February 2015 e-newsletter): the very human needs for both novelty and stability, the “change and predictability necessary for the good life.” I offer below an exercise in finding a skillful balance between the two that can lead to genuine joy and well-being.]

“All humans are motivated to seek out the psychological rewards of both novelty and stability. On the one hand, novelty is fresh and exciting. Our personal evolution requires complex, mysterious, uncertain, and challenging experiences. Without them we stop learning and growing. On the other hand, stability leads to predictability, which can be soothing. When we feel knowledgeable and in control, which is what stable situations offer, we feel safe and free to be ourselves.

“Novelty and stability also have downsides. When things are familiar, this sense of calm encourages you to let your guard down and requires fewer mental resources. But too much stability and you begin to feel like a caged animal, pacing back and forth; we often construe this state as boredom, and we feel bored with the current situation is monotonous, low intensity, and rather meaningless. In the case of boredom, we see an emotional experience that people shy away from not only because it is difficult to find any semblance of pleasure or meaning in boredom, but also because it can be viewed as a personal flaw. (“If you’re bored, then you’re boring.”)

“Can boredom be beneficial? In Hindu and Buddhist traditions, boredom is described as a precursor to insight and discovery. Parents sometimes want their children to be bored because they have an intuitive sense that grappling with this uncomfortable state is how kids discover what they’re interested in, quiet their mind, and find outlets to channel their energy….By trying to be entertained at all times, we are stuck in a cycle of experiential avoidance in which we are playing defense and hiding from discomfort. By force-feeding ourselves stimulation whenever boredom arises, we never experience the serendipitous opportunities that arise when the mind wanders without planned destinations.

“Like the oppressive boredom that occasionally comes with stability, novelty also has a dark side. Too much novelty provokes anxiety. The constant change involved in an ongoing product test, or a divorce, or even a whirlwind trip through Europe, is difficult to manage. When life comes at you too quickly and you feel bombarded by nonstop sensory overload, you edge toward panic. The nervousness that people feel when it’s all just too much is an emotional signal to slow down and hunker.”

Kashdan and Biswas-Diener’s explorations of finding meaning and fulfillment in both novelty and stability echo the pioneering research of Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi inflow, the workable balance between anxiety and boredom that allows us to be both creative and productive. And is related to Dan Siegel’s work in interpersonal neurobiology – that mental health, resilience, and well-being are to be found in an integration of novelty and stability, not leaning too far in either direction into chaos or rigidity.

Exercise to Course Correct for Change and Predictability.

Another way Kashdan and Biswas-Diener see the upside of stability-boredom is that the inherent “slow time” “offers enough psychological space for making decisions about how you want to view familiar people, activities and surroundings. Can you find the unfamiliar in the seemingly familiar? Can you see what is unique in this moment, even though on the surface everything is in exactly the same place as it was the day before. You can’t always be happy, but you can almost always be profoundly aware and curious.” Likewise, they see the upside of novelty-anxiety as “fast time”; you’re energized. “Novelty is experienced in an intense, absorbing way that makes time slip by quickly. We lose ourselves in the enthusiasms of the moment, a blend of vitality such that we feel fully present and alive.”

Finding the flow, the zone between novelty (anxiety) and stability (boredom), finding a balance between fast time and slow time in the rhythm of your days, is anchored in at least two major practices before the fine-toothed comb course correction.

1. Identify the core values you want to live by, the deep motivations and intentions that shape the overall direction and priorities of your life. (See Exercise #2: Identifying Your Big Organizing Principles in Chapter 20: Moving Resilience Beyond the Personal Self in Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being.)

2. Mindfully monitor whether the specific activities of daily life – work, relationships, hobbies – are aligned with those core values or not. Kashdan and Biswas-Diener liken this conscious monitoring of values-based living to a GPS system. “When you use a PGS system and make a wrong turn, it supplies redirection without judgment. The GPS system doesn’t scold you. You only receive information, an instant indication of which path to take if, and only if, you want to continue the initial journey.”

3. Then, working with the upside of the dark side of emotions, in a fine-toothed comb kind of way, you can use the signal of anxiety (too much novelty) to nudge yourselfin the direction of more stability, even temporarily – do any familiar routine task that will ground you – the laundry, the dishes, weeding the garden. Use the signal of boredom (too much stability) to nudge you toward more novelty, even temporarily – try a new restaurant or recipe, meet a new neighbor or visit a new city.

By paying attention and using the signals of the dark side (anxiety-boredom) we can generate more upside (novelty-stability) and strengthen our resources of resilience in whatever direction is needed most, moment by moment.