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Neuroscience & Why We Find Joy in the Unexpected

I want to tell you a story and whether you gain or lose respect for me is utterly your call. Either is acceptable. Yesterday at an outdoor cafe, a conversation with friends turned to hidden talents when I proudly shared a lifelong ability to burp on command. Private school girl by day, I was a surf ‘clubbie’ on weekends, and often reminded that with a dad whose nickname was “Belcher Bennett”, one of us had to take up the mantle. What can I say - I’ve always taken my heritage seriously.

In any case, as if to diminish my only talent, I’d no sooner finished this announcement than one of my friends responded with the most impressive burp on command I ever heard. At that precise moment, a lady was passing with her disabled daughter. Upon hearing the burp, her daughter turned her wheelchair and broke into hysterical laughter - pointing with the delight of someone right across the socially inappropriate nature of a well dressed lady’s belch shattering the orderliness of a cafe.

A rampant giggle escaped her lips, her mum followed with raucous laughter, which set us off too. Within seconds half a dozen tables around us were doubled over. It was probably minutes, but it felt like much longer in the sun of that cafe. Humans delighting in an unexpected moment.

Neuroscience helps us understand why this was so joyful.

Dopamine levels, often considered a pleasure neurochemical, is best considered a ‘drive’ and ‘search’ chemical. Its aim is to pay close attention to reward. Stop at a coffee shop in an unfamiliar place and find the most amazing coffee you’ve ever had. Brain plasticity gets a big hit like it came across a lotto ticket on the ground and dopamine spikes like a chemical version of a high five. When you head for your usual coffee, the joy of getting the coffee is not as high as it was the first time. When we expect reward, it is often not the hit that we thought. Like all those years you hang out for New Year's and it’s a massive anticlimax.

Research is disturbingly clear that the rise of ‘anhedonia’ (lack of feeling joy - often confused with depression), is likely because we spend all our time seeking dopamine hits and it rarely measures up. The first time you ever scrolled through Insta and laughed for an hour, now needs longer and longer to get the same satisfaction. We put on a favourite song a few times and then no longer pleasurable so we change to another - and so on.

Dopamine has its biggest surge when we find something rewarding that we didn’t expect. A conversation with a stranger walking their dog. Witnessing a stranger's appreciation when you run after them with something they dropped.

Humans turn to the same places to seek joy and wonder why they stop delivering. It will be the random conversations in an elevator, the email checking in on a colleague you might not even be close to, or a leaf that falls on your windscreen that brings joy. Don't miss them.

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