February focus: surprise

This week I’m going to take a deeper look at some of the primary emotions and how they serve us.

Surprise – a source of innovation

Surprise is the briefest of the primary emotions, and comes when something unexpected happens. It can be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral depending on the context and can vary in intensity. Surprise helps to focus our attention, assess threats and spark curiosity so we look at things in new ways.

Surprise ranges in intensity, from astonishment and awe to confused and dismayed, or even shocked. Surprise is often followed by another emotion, such as fear, amusement, disgust or happiness, revealing how you assess the surprise, which will vary from person to person. A surprise birthday party might be pleasant or unpleasant, depending on how you feel about those kinds of surprise!

A signal of uncertainty

Surprise can be triggered by anything unexpected like loud noises or sudden movements, or by things that don’t match our predictions or expectations – like a plot twist in a movie or seemingly fresh milk that has soured.

Surprise works by clearing your working memory so you have capacity to face the unexpected thing that’s happening. It activates your attention and triggers exploration and curiosity.

When someone experiences the emotion of surprise, they typically have raised eyebrows, dilated pupils and a dropped jaw. How far the jaw drops depends on the intensity of the surprise. They might throw up a hand to cover their mouth or whole face, and take a step back. They are likely to gasp or take a quick breath or even squeal. Internally they may feel energised and attentive. Physically surprise triggers a surge in dopamine from the brain’s reward centre.

“Everything that is new or uncommon raises a pleasure in the imagination, because it fills the soul with an agreeable surprise, gratifies its curiosity, and gives it an idea of which it was not before possessed.

Joseph Addison

Surprise drives curiosity and innovation

Surprise serves us by clearing our mind to assess threats and then opens us up to new ideas. A surprise causes us to stop in our tracks, then try to make sense of what’s going on. This period of wonder can open up new perspectives and possibilities while we explore the situation. Surprise often leads us to share our experience with someone else, which can help us share the burden of processing the unpredictable event.

Surprise can lead to a variety of emotions, and while pleasant surprises can be stimulating and exciting, unpleasant surprises like losing your job or receiving a difficult diagnosis can be harder to recover from. In these cases it can be helpful to be open to uncertainty as an opportunity to learn and grow.

Some people are keen to avoid surprise at all costs so that they don’t feel unprepared or look silly. But playing it safe can be boring and quickly lead to dissatisfaction or disengagement. Predictability in romantic relationships can see them lose their spark; jobs where there is no variety or room to experiment can seem dull and uninspiring. This is because it’s the unexpected that triggers our reward centres.

Many people in lockdown are complaining of intense boredom and stagnation because life isn’t offering as many surprises as it used to. Finding ways to bring some unpredictability to your day can help boost your mood.

6 ways to cultivate surprise

🧡 Take some risks: do something where the outcome is uncertain – order from a new takeaway restaurant or try a new recipe, take up a new hobby, or ask someone out

🧡 Get curious: ask questions, get interested in a new topic, talk to new people, find out more about where you live

🧡 Mix it up: walk your usual route in reverse, change what you drink during the day, change up your food routines

🧡 Surprise others: give someone a compliment, send unexpected gifts, do a good deed, go the extra mile

🧡 Daily Practice : Expression

Draw, create or colour something that expresses your mood.

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