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The Need for Novelty


Explanations > Needs > The Need for Novelty

Boredom | Curiosity | Achievable challenge | So what?


If you were very rich and admired by many, would you be happy? The evidence seems that this is not so. Rock stars and movie moguls who achieve fame and fortune tend not to sit on their backsides for long. They keep working, even to the point of spending away their fortune and achieving disrepute rather than more fame. So what is going on?

Viewing this situation through the lens of evolution, if we stood still when we had achieved our goals, we would be overtaken. Evolutionary biologists call this the ‘Red Queen Effect,’ after a situation in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Through the Looking Glass,’ where the red queen admonishes Alice, ‘It takes all the running you can do to stay in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.’ Evolution is a race: if the competition evolves faster than you, you are as good as dead.

The need for novelty is the fuel of creativity and innovation. We are impelled to create and change, even if we are otherwise comfortable, and nature has provided us with several drivers to ensure that we do not stand still.


Repeating the same action time after time, as many factory workers know, can be deadly dull. Even when we go on holiday and are sunning ourselves by the swimming pool, many of us can only do this for a limited period before we have to get up and do something.

In a world-wide study of happiness, Chicago professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discovered the work-leisure paradox, where when we are at work, we dream of being at leisure, but when we are at leisure, we are not as happy as when we are embroiled in some stimulating work.

A bored child will be naughty, just to get attention and interest. It seems better that any stimulation is better than none. It is perhaps not surprising that sensory deprivation can seen as a terrible punishment, as is solitary isolation in captivity (it is also one reason why zoos try not to put single animals in cages).


If boredom pushes us away from doing nothing, it is curiosity that pulls us towards investigating new things. Children are born curious and constantly explore and test the world around them. Lewis Carroll’s stories of Alice’s adventures are all about curiosity (the word and it variants appears 52 times in his books). As Alice said, ‘curiouser and curiouser.’

Unfortunately, the forces of curiosity are often overcome by the forces of control. The need that adults have for control and conformity lead them to suppress the sometimes destructive explorations of young children. This suppression then carries over into adult life and we learn to be very cautious about how and where we allow our inner child to express itself (see the side panel ‘Transactional Analysis’).

Achievable challenge

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, through his work on happiness, discovered the simple secret of success. The trick is to take on challenges which stretch you, but where you have sufficient capability, time and other resources to complete the challenge. He also describes the ‘autotelic’ personality, where people of all classes and positions have discovered the secret and set their own short- and long-term achievable challenges.

Creative and inventive situations are full of challenge, which can be made far more achievable when you understand the basics of how people and science work. This book, then, could hold the key to greater happiness and fulfilment in your life!


There are two main boundaries in our need for novelty and stimulation. One is the boredom threshold, as described above. The other is the overload threshold, where pleasure turns to pain and excitement to terror.

As with the boredom threshold, this can be low or high. It is a characteristic of people on the autism spectrum that they often have a very low overload threshold. It is as if they cannot keep out the stimulation around them. 'Normal' people, on the other hand, seem to have filters whereby they can, for example, 'not hear' people other than those with whom they are talking.

So what?

So put some novelty into your life. Do different things. Have fun. But don't over-do it.

Offer novelty to other people. As long as you do not damage their sense of control, novelty can be well used to pique interest and get people engaged.

See also

The Need for Arousal, The Need for Stimulation, The Need to Learn


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