One of the benefits of getting older is that if you pay enough attention, you learn what works. The potential downside to learning what works is that you do it again and again — and again. You know what happens then? It stops working, or at least as well as it did; it might sustain you, but doesn’t feed your mind and spirit because you’re on autopilot, so you become less receptive to new possibilities and you stop expanding. Rigidity and habit are kudzu to vibrancy and growth.
What to do about it? Open up. Research has found that a personality trait called openness to experience — one of the “big five” personality traits, as psychology researchers call them — predicts longevity and is associated with better health and greater happiness. Openness encompasses such factors as creativity, flexible thinking, and receptivity to new ideas and experiences. One recent study found that people who scored higher on this trait feel younger than they actually are.
The quest to increase your openness quotient doesn’t have to involve extreme novelty-seeking. Here are some ways to open up:
Try to look at things and situations without preconceived notions; allow yourself to see things in new ways. Don’t think you already know everything — and don’t aim to, either. Once you think you’ve got it all figured out, the range of possibilities narrows drastically. Savor not knowing, sometimes. Be mindful. There’s plenty to learn and experience in our world, and many of us notice only a fraction of it. Make an effort to tune in and absorb more of the details of your life that are already there.
Resist the urge to seek answers right away. This is especially hard when we can find answers to just about everything online. Practice playing with various possible solutions before seeking definitive answers. Allow yourself to wonder about things without rushing to figure them out.
It seeks one right answer, when there are usually other options. While you’re at it, embrace failure. You’ve heard this one before. If you’re afraid of being wrong, you won’t take chances on learning new things.
Prepare for a challenge.
A recent study found that when participants were provided with the proper training to prepare for a new challenge, their levels of openness increased — and this was true even a year after the training program.
In a recent study, openness was increased by oxytocin, which other studies have shown to be elevated by touch and social contact; even just hearing a loved one’s voice.
Seek new brain food.
Try books, art, or music that you wouldn’t normally choose. Ask friends for suggestions, and use them. Even if you don’t like what you hear or see, your brain will benefit from the indulgence in something different.
Dance, or just move.
A recent study found that dance-therapy students had increased levels of openness as compared to students pursuing other majors. The boost was related to their improved kinesthetic awareness, so other types of focused physical activity should serve the same purpose.
Keep your brain active.
In one study, doing crossword and sudoku puzzles was part of the cognitive training that increased participants’ openness. You’ll know when something is a stretch for your brain — do that thing.
Tori Rodriguez is a writer, psychotherapist, and wellness coach in private practice near Atlanta.