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How To Embrace Variety In Order To Live A Happier & More Meaningful Life

Michael Rucker, Ph.D.
Psychologist & Behavioral Scientist
By Michael Rucker, Ph.D.
Psychologist & Behavioral Scientist
Michael Rucker, Ph.D. is a long-time advocate of positive psychology and a charter member of the International Positive Psychology Association.
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August 20, 2021

Variety is the spice of life, as they say—but how exactly should that adage be embraced? Well, that depends somewhat on how you apply variety to your life. For instance, some might thrive having a "year of yes" where they accept any invitation that comes their way. Others might find this type of variety exhausting. The good news: There are plenty of ways to add variety to your life, all of which can increase your potential for fun and add opportunities for more joy in your day-to-day life.

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Why is variety important?

Have you heard of the hedonic treadmill before? It is a psychological phenomenon (sometimes referred to as hedonic adaptation) that suggests when our experiences become routine or habitual, they begin to lose their luster. Hence, life can sometimes feel like running on a treadmill. This occurs because most of us possess a happiness "set-point," which fluctuates based on the novelty of our experiences. The idea is that we generally return to this set-point once things normalize and become familiar.

However, science has discovered that this set-point is multifaceted—unique to each individual. Meaning what makes one person happy might not necessarily work for the next. This is partly because happiness comes to us through a variety of positive emotions (e.g., curiosity, joy, pride, etc.) based on our preferences. Furthermore, our respective goals in life vary dramatically. For instance, I find purpose through sharing my message with others, but you may find yours through service to your community.

Can there ever be too much variety?

I have coined the term variable hedonics to embody the value variety has in supporting our well-being. That variability is one of the primary levers we can play with to live happier lives. Although a significant degree of our happiness may indeed be predetermined by our genes and circumstances, there remains a significant proportion we can directly influence. By using variety as a tool to support our happiness, we can take an action-oriented approach toward manifesting more fun and joy in our lives.

So, although the adage that variety is the spice of life holds true, it raises the question: How much spice? In a study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, Jordan Etkin, Ph.D., and Cassie Mogilner Holmes, Ph.D., found that a variety of activities do, in fact, make us happier—as long as we don't overload our days.

Scheduled thoughtfully, variety is fun and rewarding, giving us a sense of fulfillment because it's stimulating and helps us avoid boredom. However, when we try to jam too many things into tight windows of time (whether at work or play), the constant switching of tasks undermines our productivity, stresses us out, and leaves us with the negative feeling that we didn't accomplish much. In Etkin's own words, "Although variety is the spice of life, it is not necessarily the spice of an hour."

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Create a "fun file" to add some spice.

The lesson here is to use variety accordingly. To understand how to use it appropriately in your life, I recommend creating a "fun file." This reflective exercise will help you brainstorm ways to have more fun that you may not have thought about otherwise. Here's how to do it:

  1. Think about times from your past and present that have pleased you: What are some things you've wanted to do but haven't made a priority? What are some activities from the past that used to really light you up, that might still do so if you revisited them? Add all these ideas to your fun file.
  2. Channel your future self and ask similar questions: What are some things you have been curious about that you would like to explore? Add these to the list, too.
  3. Use this as a reference guide for available options to add some variety to your life—maybe even taking it a step further and actually scheduling them, helping to ensure that they happen. 
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Bottom line.

Consciously adding variety to your life reminds you of the agency you possess over how you spend your time and—by proxy—the autonomy you have in influencing your happiness. By deliberately exploring ideas and activities outside of your routine, whether it's going to a dance class, taking a chance on a new book, or going to the fruit market instead of ordering out again—you set yourself up with a variety of activities that are bound to bring new excitement one way or another. Introducing a healthy dose of variety to your life breaks the hedonic treadmill cycle, keeps life more interesting, and can ultimately lead to greater happiness. 

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Michael Rucker, Ph.D.
Michael Rucker, Ph.D.
Psychologist & Behavioral Scientist

Michael Rucker, Ph.D. is a long-time advocate of positive psychology and a charter member of the International Positive Psychology Association. He received a Ph.D in Organizational Psychology from Alliant International University in San Diego. Rucker authored the book The Fun Habit, which offers a practical reframing of positive psychology, making the case that we should cultivate the habit of fun to bring a greater sense of happiness and joy to our lives.