Most of us could benefit from letting a little more surprise into our lives. But that would mean giving up a bit of control. Surprisologist Tania Luna explains why that is increasingly important.
What does surprise do to our brain and our psyche?
Surprise is the neuropsychological equivalent of a pause button. It makes us stop what we're doing, hijacks our attention, and forces us to pay attention. It also intensifies our emotions by about 400 percent. Every surprise, big or small, activates the brain's surprise sequence: freeze, find, shift, share. (Freeze and pay attention. Get curious and find an explanation. Shift your perspective. Share your experience with others.)
How does surprise help relationships?
The most fulfilling relationships have balance on the surprise seesaw. They have enough predictability to create a sense of safety and comfort, and they have enough surprise to trigger passion and playfulness. Surprise releases dopamine, a neurochemical associated with romantic love, so couples who surprise each other often or share surprising, novel experiences get infinite access to those new-love butterflies.
Why doesn’t everyone welcome surprise in their life?
Humans have a love/hate relationship with surprise. It's alluring and exciting, but it's also full of risk and danger. Those of us who are surprise-averse are either prone to a high need for certainty by nature, have had negative surprises in the past, are already experiencing too much change or uncertainty, or have inadvertently learned to use control and planning as a coping mechanism in times of stress and anxiety, choosing certainty over emotional richness and deep connection.
Why is surprise especially important now?
There are two major reasons. One is, we have so much control over our lives that we are squeezing the surprise out. We regularly Google away delight by previewing our experiences before we have them (for example, the weather, menus, hotel rooms). Too little surprise makes our lives lifeless. Without surprise, we'll always feel that something is missing, often without being able to put our finger on it.
The second major reason surprise is important now is that in many ways, our world is more surprising today than ever, and we have to develop the skills of handling all the change and uncertainty. There are more new innovations, threats, and opportunities than ever before. Those of us who can embrace surprise will be most likely to use it as an opportunity. This is the age of the surprisologists.
What do our individual reactions to surprise reveal about us?
I love this question! People typically react to unexpected events in one of three ways—flight: they hide inside their comfort zones; fight: they try to beat the surprise into submission with control and planning; or flex: they stay curious and flexible, moving with the surprise instead of against it.
Most of us have a pattern of surprise reactions (flight, fight, or flex). Flight patterns are associated with low assertiveness, risk avoidance, and, in extreme cases, depression. Fight patterns are associated with anxiety, aggression, and high blood pressure. Flex patterns are associated with resilience, growth, and even wisdom.
People get stuck in ruts, especially in relationships. Can surprises actually change dynamics for the better?
Oh yes! One of the most common medicines relationship therapists, conflict mediators, and even clinical counselors prescribe is change. The reason change is so powerful is that it produces surprise. Surprise creates new neural pathways in the brain, giving us access to new perspectives, ideas, and opportunities.
What are two or three good ways to incorporate surprise into one’s life?
• Don't Google away delight: Before you go somewhere new or meet someone new, don't do research on it. Just allow yourself to be surprised.
• Schedule a standing date on your calendar for you and a surprising new experience. It can be as elaborate as taking a foot juggling class or as small as reading an odd (to you) magazine.
• Actively turn on wonder: Spend an entire day (or more) saying "I wonder…."
• Never leave someone's home or office without planting a small surprise for them to find. (Post-it notes are a surprisologist's best friend.)
What led you to write a whole book about surprise?
Understanding surprise unequivocally changed my life. I am a recovering control freak/surprise-hater. Learning to embrace surprise has allowed me to have a richer, more vibrant existence, fuller relationships, and deeper emotions. And learning to engineer surprise has helped me delight others. It has also taught me to be a better teacher (for my college students and for our corporate clients at LifeLabs New York).
What does a surprisologist know about surprises that the rest of us don’t?
Most of us are skilled "knowers" but lousy "not knowers." Being comfortable with (and even delighted by) not knowing is one of life's most important skills.
What is the most surprising thing you discovered in researching/writing your book?
There is very, very little research on surprise, even though it appears to be a universal emotion. Few people seem to think about surprise. But once they start thinking about it, they can't seem to stop! My co-author LeeAnn Renninger and I have been obsessed with it for over six years now.
What is the most important point you want to get across?
We feel most comfortable when things are certain, but we feel most alive when they're not.
Who would most benefit by reading this book?
People in relationships, people who work in rapidly changing or creative industries, innovators, teachers, entrepreneurs, artists, lovers and haters of surprise. If I had to cut down this list, I'd say two groups: people who are overwhelmed by the surprises and uncertainties in their lives and people who are surprisologists at heart, adventurers who are constantly in search of wonder and whimsy.
If you had one piece of advice, what would it be and for whom?
For people who cling to control and resist vulnerability and uncertainty: You only get one life. You may as well live it all the way. When we don't let surprise in, we keep wonder, playfulness, exuberance, and love out. Imagine looking back on your life on your death bed. Will you feel proud of yourself for staying safe? Or will you relish the moments in which you let life surprise you?
Tania Luna is an entrepreneur, an educator, and a surprisologist. She is cofounder and CEO of Surprise Industries.
About THE AUTHOR SPEAKS: Selected authors, in their own words, reveal the story behind the story. Authors are featured thanks to promotional placement by their publishing houses.
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