Is your life made up of lots of little surprises? If not why not!? Shake up expectation, spark up relationships and stay present and proactive by peppering your life with small and simple surprises. This isn’t about great big gestures, or lavish set-ups. In fact, the smaller and more regular the better, because when it comes to surprise, size doesn’t matter.
In this article we’re exploring the brain boosting benefits of surprise and looking at ways we can shake up the script by bringing more of the unexpected into our everyday lives. In fact, we’re redefining what we mean by ‘everyday life’ by swapping mundane and ordinary for unexpected and extraordinary! Join us as we step into surprise and discover some of its startling benefits such as: enhanced memory, increased happiness, strengthened relationships, heightened resilience and greater opportunities to create and innovate.
Anyone who has young kids will have heard of the surprise egg videos on YouTube. For those of you who haven’t they are basically videos of someone unwrapping a plastic egg filled with small toys. That’s it. Here’s an example of someone unwrapping several surprise eggs covered in ‘play-doh’. And this 21-minute video has over 600 million views! In his thought-provoking Ted Talk, James Bridle describes these videos as “crack for little kids. There’s something about the repetition, the constant little dopamine hit of the reveal, that completely hooks them in. And little kids watch these videos over and over and over again, and they do it for hours and hours and hours.”
Now whilst I’m not suggesting you spend your lunch break watching surprise egg videos, there is something to be learnt from this seemingly bizarre obsession. The surprise is very simple. The brain rewards the children with the same feel-good chemicals as if they were opening the surprise eggs themselves. The hippocampus is one of the most important brain regions involved in the discovery process, a crucial component in triggering the surprise sequence in the brain. This is because the hippocampus serves as the brain’s “novelty detector” by comparing the sensory information coming in with what’s already known. If this information differs from what is expected, it triggers the release of dopamine- the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitter. This feedback loop is what makes surprise feel so good (and is also what makes these strange videos so addictive to kids!)
In one study 25 people underwent MRI scans while having water or fruit juice squirted into their mouth, either in a predictable or unpredictable pattern. The scans revealed that the brain’s pleasure centre was most strongly activated when the squirts were unpredictable. Researchers commented that: “The region lights up like a Christmas tree on the MRI[when surprised]. That suggests people are designed to crave the unexpected.”
Thankfully there are countless ways to enjoy the benefits of surprise in your everyday life. It could be as simple as changing your usual greeting. Instead of asking your partner “how was your day?” perhaps you ask them: “what was the most exciting thing you did today?” This subtle change has given your partner the opportunity to tell a different story and has given your relationship a chance to break away from its usual script. A small and simple surprise is sometimes all it takes to wake us up to the moment and shine a light on something unfamiliar or new.
Couples guru John Gottman believes that the secret to a happy relationship is to ’show up’ everyday by doing little things to show that you care. This isn’t about bringing home flowers or cooking a special dinner (although by all means do!) This is about breaking predictable patterns, with small gestures that show not only that you care, but also that you are present in the relationship. To quote John Gottman: “Like the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which says that in closed energy systems things tend to run down and get less orderly, the same seems to be true of closed relationships like marriages. My guess is that if you do nothing to make things get better in your marriage but do not do anything wrong, the marriage will still tend to get worse over time. To maintain a balanced emotional ecology, you need to make an effort—think about your spouse during the day, think about how to make a good thing even better, and act.”
When we look at someone through a lens of expectation and past experience, we don’t give them space to grow. By fixing them in our mind we limit opportunity for growth and development in the relationship. I’m currently reading a fascinating book called Playing Pygmalion: how people create one another and the author Ruthellen Josselson talks about how “we have a stake in people being…what we need them to be for us…[and] when we have sculpted people out of our own need, our relationship with them becomes fulfilling – but lifeless.”
When we’ve known someone for a long time, we can quite easily stop seeing them as they actually are. We see what we choose to see based on our own patterns and conditioning. But actually, we are so much more than that. You may have met an ex and suddenly discover they love scuba diving and mountain biking. Who knew! What has happened is that their new relationship has allowed them to express another part of themselves. To use the wise words of Goethe: “treat an individual as they are and they will remain how they are. Treat him as he ought to be or could be and he will become what he ought to be or could be.” Embracing surprise in relationship can be a hugely transformative tool for reinvigorating and reimagining a relationship. A great example of this in my life is with my relationship with my identical twin sister Penelope Waller. 15 years ago, I never would have dreamed we could work collaboratively and now…we run a company together! With hindsight we can see so many of these wonderful unexpected surprises in my life. Surprises that remind us to regularly shake up relationships, so that they always have the space to develop and grow.
I heard a beautiful story on The Mindvalley Podcast from motivational speaker and therapist Sean Stephenson. Sean learnt about the power of ‘surprise connection’ when he was 8-years old, thanks to a surprise encounter with an airport shuttle driver. Sean stayed at the front of the bus and spoke to the driver for the duration of the ride back to the hotel. Later that evening as he and his family were eating at the hotel’s restaurant, the driver came up to Sean and his family and thanked Sean for talking to him. He told them about how sad and lonely he’d been after a recent divorce and how he had actually planned to take his own life that evening. However, after his unexpected conversation with Sean he realised there was life left in him. And that his life was worth living. Such a small, simple thing, such as talking to a stranger, can be the most wonderful- and perhaps even life-changing- surprise.
We all carry around this power to surprise but we have to be present in order to access it. Because surprise captures our attention, takes us away from our thoughts and gives us a moment of heightened attention. It goes beyond communication. Surprise is about connecting. It is one of the primal threads that has the power to connect us and close the gap between us and ‘other’. So why not surprise yourself and somebody else today? Take a moment to look up from your phone and connect with a stranger. You might be surprised to find that they aren’t that strange after all.
Why should you sprinkle surprise into your next meeting? Because it will trigger a release of dopamine in your colleagues’ brains, boost your team members’ long term memory and will improve their creativity and ability to think outside the box. One study discovered that: “the release of dopamine in the hippocampus of rats activates the synapses among nerve cells, creating stronger connections that lead to long-term memory storage.” Another study took this further and used FMRI scanners to compare long and short-term memory in humans. Test subjects were divided into 2 groups and the first group were shown a series of known images, whereas the second group were shown mix of known and unknown images. The FMRI data revealed that the second group were better at remembering the images as their scans showed greater activity in the SN and VTA areas of the brain.
Surprise is also a key ingredient for disruptive innovation. Disruptive innovators capitalise on the power of surprise by reaching further, connecting disconnected ideas and embracing blank canvas thinking. So, if you want to redefine a category, create new customer behaviour or change the trajectory of your business, you are going to have to embrace the power of surprise.
An example of surprise innovation comes from King Price Insurance. The company offers an alternative to conventional car insurance plans by offering decreasing premiums in line with a car’s decreasing value. By considering a lot more data, the company has been able to offer cheaper, short-term insurance plans and retain happier customers, who find themselves regularly rewarded with a cheaper rate.
Don’t save up surprises!
With April Fool’s day only a week away, why not start flexing those surprise muscles by startling yourself, your colleagues or even an unknowing stranger! Let’s not save surprise for special occasions. Bring a ‘jack-in-a-box’ attitude into the boardroom, the energy of a party popper to your PT session and the essence of an unexpected win to a weekday dinner date. Bring to mind one person, perhaps a team member, partner or friend, and think of way you can surprise them right after reading this article. Perhaps you text them a quote, send them a thankful email or invite them for a coffee. Something so small and simple can be a great surprise to someone and can have a profoundly positive impact on their aptitude for work, mental health and overall wellbeing. So, don’t wait for their birthday or retirement party to say the things you want to say: surprise them today!