Years ago, just after I finished my psychiatry residency, a beloved supervisor called to say she had some bad news. At a routine checkup, she had glanced at her chest X-ray up on the viewing box while waiting for her doctor to come into the room. She was a trauma surgeon before becoming a psychiatrist and had spent years reading chest X-rays, so she knew that the coin-size lesion she saw in her lung was almost certainly cancer, given her long history of smoking.
We had dinner soon after. She was still more than two years away from the end of her life and felt physically fine—vital, even. That’s why I was so surprised when she said she had no desire to spend whatever time she had left on exotic travel or other new adventures. She wanted her husband, her friends, her family, dinner parties, and the great outdoors. “Just more Long Island sunsets. I don’t need Bali,” she told me.
At the end of life, you might expect people to feel regret for all the things they wanted to do and never made time for. But I have yet to know a patient or friend who, facing the blunt fact of their own mortality, had anything close to a bucket list. This squares with some recent research that shows that people tend to prefer familiar experiences more when they are reminded that their days are limited. The people I know even regretted the novelty they’d chased along the way, whether it was recreational-drug use or dating exciting people who they knew weren’t relationship material.
Deathbed pronouncements can have limited applications for the rest of life, but this pattern suggests that novelty is perhaps overrated. Chasing the high of new sensations simply isn’t appealing for many people, and can sometimes even be bad for our health. I suspect that’s because, too often, the pursuit of novelty requires sacrificing the things we already know we love.
It’s a common misconception that people who don’t have a taste for the newest, sexiest experience are dull, incurious, and unimaginative. A 2002 study found that people will switch away from their favorite, habitual choices when they know others are watching in order to avoid being judged as narrow-minded. And yet, Warren Buffett notoriously eats breakfast at the same fast-food restaurant every day and sticks to a strict work schedule. Taylor Swift’s music can be redundant and predictable. Barack Obama is famous for his strict morning exercise regime and daily reading time.
Even when they’re not facing death, many people just don’t seem to like novelty that much. In 2017, a poll by a British soup company found that 77 percent of U.K. workers had consumed the exact same lunch every day for nine months and that one in six people had done so for at least two years. You might think it’s just a matter of convenience or economic exigency (the study didn’t say), but I’m not so sure; wealthy people I know partake in similar behavior, even if they do it at a fancy restaurant. Consider, too, that when people lose a pet, many run out and get a replacement of the same breed with a similar temperament. They repeatedly date people with the same quirks and problems. They return to a favorite vacation spot. They listen to the same musical artists and styles time and again.
Research shows that humans have an intrinsic preference for things and people they are familiar with, something called the mere exposure effect. Several studies have shown that people who listen to unfamiliar songs repeatedly grow fonder of the songs they hear most by the end of the experiment, even if they did not initially like them very much. You don’t even have to be aware that you’re growing used to something for the effect to work.
This tendency toward repetition may seem natural, even lazy, but it runs counter to much of our history. We, along with other animals, evolved to be exquisitely sensitive to novel experiences. Way back in the Paleolithic era, there was a clear survival advantage to being attuned to new situations, which could lead someone to a potential mate or a piece of mastodon, or reveal a deadly threat. Nowadays, though, with every conceivable reward—food, sex, drugs, emotional validation, you name it—either a click, tap, or ChatGPT query away, conventional novelty-seeking has lost much of its adaptive advantage.
As Arthur Brooks has written in The Atlantic, novelty can be fun and exciting. New and unexpected experiences activate the brain’s reward pathway more powerfully than familiar ones, leading to greater dopamine release and a more intense sense of pleasure. But on its own, excitement won’t bring about enduring happiness. Human beings habituate rapidly to what is new. To achieve a lifetime of stimulation, you would have to embark on an endless search for the unfamiliar, which would inevitably lead to disappointment. Worse, the unfettered pursuit of novelty can lead to harm through excessive thrill-seeking—including antisocial behavior such as reckless driving—particularly when the novelty seeker has poor impulse control and a disregard for others.
There’s a better way. Research shows that when novelty-seeking is paired with persistence, people are far more likely to be happy, probably because they are able to achieve something meaningful. You might, for example, take a variety of courses in college or try different summer internships if you’re not yet sure what interests you. When one really clicks, you should explore it in depth; it might even become a lifelong passion. This principle relates to less consequential pleasures, too: If you’re checking out a new neighborhood joint, consider ordering different things during your first few visits, then picking your favorite and sticking with it.
Novelty-seeking is most valuable when you use it as a tool to discover the things and people you love—and once you find them, go deep and long with those experiences and relationships. The siren call that tells you there might be a new and better version of what you already have is likely an illusion, driven by your brain’s relentless reward pathway. When in doubt, pick a beloved activity over an unfamiliar one.
This golden rule of novelty may help explain why some people at the end of their life regret having spent so much time exploring new things, even if they once brought fleeting pleasure. Age, too, might partly explain this feeling, because older people tend to be less open to new experiences. But that’s probably not the whole story. My colleagues who treat children and adolescents have mentioned that, in the face of life-threatening diagnoses, even young people prefer the familiar. They do so not only because the familiar is known and safe, but because it is more meaningful to them. After all, things become familiar to us because we choose them repeatedly—and we do that because they are deeply rewarding.
Imagine, just for a moment, that your death is near. What might you miss out on if you put your bucket list on hold? Sure, you won’t make it to Bali or Antarctica. But maybe instead you could fit in one last baseball game with your kids, one last swim in the ocean, one last movie with your beloved, one last Long Island sunset. If you prioritize the activities and people you already love, you won’t reach the end of your life wishing you’d made more time for them.