According to an emerging body of research, chance is an under-appreciated ingredient in human happiness. Happiness research suggests there is a profound conflict in our nature: we constantly try to make sense of our world by removing uncertainty from our lives, but the same mechanism that causes us to feel anxious during bad experiences can also make us feel more happy during good experiences.
We need to understand the world, but the understanding we gain can take away the pleasure we get from chance encounters and serendipitous events. In other words, uncertainty is not good for us during negative times, but it’s actually good for us during positive times. That’s because an uncertain gratifying event is harder to make sense of, so we focus on it for longer, prolonging our emotional high. Psychologists call this the “pleasure paradox.”
It turns out a lot of pleasure can be gained from uncertainty. In the mid 19th century, the French Revolution gave rise to a cultural phenomenon known as flanerie. Parisian flaneurs, dissatisfied with "modern life," encouraged aimless, enjoyable wandering throughout the city, in order to battle feelings of urgency and alienation.
Today we feel a great deal of urgency in our lives and many of us feel a sense of alienation, too. We are routine oriented, mechanized, and efficient modern humans. With technology streamlining our lives, we’ve lost the art of stumbling upon random things and finding magical moments. We don’t wander off into the wilderness of daydreams, cloud watching, or fantasy moments anymore.
The internet encourages us to connect with people we don’t know (that's good for serendipity), but we also have the desire to make things more efficient. With algorithms (that's what businesses use to figure out our purchasing and browsing history so they can determine what we are likely to buy in the future) and with apps, our lives have become even more streamlined and efficient. With our technological gadgets close by, we never have to rely on chance again.
In order to embrace serendipity, break out of our old routines, and celebrate uncertainty, it’s important to spend a little time each day:
- allowing yourself simple pleasures
- daydreaming, cloud watching, fantasizing, using your imagination
- trying different stores, restaurants, parks, foods
- thinking about all the ways a good thing might never have happened
- carrying out random activities like acts of kindness, a walk to a new place, or making a purchase at a store you happen to notice
- looking for magical moments in your daily routines
- practising flanerie
- putting away your technological gadgets and allowing yourself the luxury of getting lost
As modern humans, we’ve been neglecting our inner selves and our need for serendipity. It’s time to change that.
Debbie L. Kasman
Author Lotus of the Heart: Reshaping the Human and Collective Soul
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