Why Humans Need Surprise
A new book argues that surprise, whether good or bad, is critical for bringing vitality to our lives.
During a recent out of town vacation, I was in a restaurant having dinner alone when I overheard two women at the next table having a conversation about their children going off to college. Though I’m normally shy with strangers, I decided to butt in—I too have a college-bound senior—which led to a great conversation and an unexpected surprise: one of the women had a child at my son’s high school…and our kids knew each other!
Delightful surprises like this can make your whole day. Of course, not all surprises are good ones—those two women could have just as easily chastised me for interrupting their conversation.
But in the new book Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected, Tania Luna and Leeann Renninger argue that surprise, whether good or bad, is important for bringing vitality to our lives. Their book explores the science and practice of engineering surprise—whether at work, at home, or in our relationships—and provides a pathway to living life with more engagement and wonder.
Why is surprise important? It turns out that surprise works on the dopamine system in our brains, helping us to focus our attention and inspiring us to look at our situation in new ways. Luna and Renninger outline four stages of the surprise response:
- Freeze—when we are stopped in our tracks because of the unexpected
- Find—when we get hooked into trying to understand what’s going on/how this happened
- Shift—when we begin to shift our perspectives, based on conflicting findings
- Share—when we feel the pull to share our surprises with others
Each stage can be manipulated or “hacked” to encourage more surprise in our lives. For example, when we are in the “find” phase of surprise, it can help us to adopt a stance of curiosity, asking questions rather than looking for answers right away, which can lead to worldview shifts. So, let’s say you are a Democrat and feel that all Republicans are “crazy”—then you meet a Republican and fall into a very sane, thoughtful conversation. This experience may make you stop and, if you are willing, get curious. It might even make you think about political disagreements in new ways.
Funny, I don’t think of sharing as part of surprise; but apparently, it’s a common response. According to the authors, sharing surprises with others can help us savor them even more and relieve us of what they call the “cognitive burden” of surprise—all of that finding and shifting that goes through our heads. Perhaps that’s why when I got home from my trip, I was quick to share the story of my chance encounter with my husband. In fact, if I think about it, I probably always recount surprises to someone.
Of course, negative surprises are much more challenging than positive ones—receiving a devastating diagnosis, having a car accident, or losing your job will not be a welcome change of pace. But, as Luna and Renninger argue, that doesn’t mean we can avoid them—they are a natural part of life. It is better to find ways to cope with negative surprises than to resist them. Being open to uncertainty, learning how to reframe negative experiences in more positive ways, and nurturing stable relationships are all tools we can use to recover from negative surprises more easily.
For some people, the desire to avoid all surprise is paramount, often because they fear appearing foolish or ill-prepared. But this leads to stagnation, claim the authors. “So long as we fear vulnerability, we play it safe and stop ourselves from exploring,” they write.
This dynamic is perhaps never more obvious than in a work setting, where a micromanaging boss can kill innovation, or in long-term relationships, where predictability can take the spark out of romance. That’s why in experiments with married couples those who engage more in novel activities had more relationships satisfaction than those that didn’t. Likewise, workplaces where managers encourage experimentation and see the value of occasional failure tend to be highly prized by employees.
To invite more surprise into your life, while avoiding the pitfalls, the authors suggest several strategies:
- Reframe vulnerability as openness and take deliberate steps to be more vulnerable—such as sharing personal or embarrassing information about yourself with someone else that you might not otherwise share. Experiments have shown that being vulnerable with others will endear you to them, especially if you seem like someone who is very competent or a know-it-all.
- Practice engaging in activities where you don’t know how things will turn out, such as inviting a colleague out for a drink or asking for a raise. If that’s difficult to imagine, it can help if you play out different scenarios in your head beforehand and come up with strategies to handle all possible outcomes.
- Make a “struggle sandwich.” In other words, try taking bigger risks sandwiched between taking smaller risks that are more likely to go well, so that you learn to associate risk-taking with positive outcomes.
- Become more curious about your surroundings, by asking questions to people you don’t know or more penetrating questions to people you know well. Or, perhaps, reading a magazine or seeing a movie about a topic you know nothing about.
- Mix things up in your routines, such as taking the bus instead of driving to work or suggesting an unusual activity to do with your spouse or trying a new restaurant. These kinds of unexpected changes can lead to new insights and increased appreciation.
- Delight other people by giving them small, unexpected gifts, “under-promising and over-delivering” (e.g. promising to do the dishes and then cleaning out the fridge, too), or just doing something nice without explaining why, to create mystery and increase happiness. In one experiment, students in a library received a car containing a gold dollar with a message saying either “Have a nice day” alone or “Have a nice day” from the “Smile Society,” with a brief explanation of the society’s mission. When tested later, those who’d received the mysterious cards were in a better mood and had thought about the car much longer than those whose cards were explained.
Luna and Renninger suggest that we all need to stop protecting ourselves from the uncertainty or fear of surprise and get out there to engineer more of it. Not only will surprise bring more vitality to our lives, it will also lead to improvements in society.
“By embracing and engineering surprise you can make our whole world richer,” they write. “You can inspire wonder, connection, vulnerability, growth, and creativity.”