The Surprising Role Of Surprise In Mental Health



The value of surprise

Recently, I was asked to speak at a retirement home to folks now living in the last quadrant of their lives. My subject was the value of surprise and its link to happiness. I challenged my audience to do something during the week that would shock their children.

They looked at me as if they hadn’t heard correctly and needed their hearing aids adjusted. In a nursing home the routines are fairly predictable, such as Bingo at 4:00, Dinner at 6:00, and Bedtime at 8:00 pm. To say their lives are predictable is an understatement and many suffer from depression.

Surprise helps us remember

Regardless of our age, human brains are prepared and organized to handle the next event that is likely to materialize. Most of the time, the events occur as planned. But in the odd moments when the unexpected happens, our brains fires off new receptors. The neurological response heightens our awareness making the event more memorable.

Ask anyone who was over the age of 5 in 2001 where they were when the plane hit the World Trade Center and likely then will have a vivid memory of the day. The Baby Boomer Generation could also respond to the question, “Where were you when John Kennedy was shot?” Details of unexpected emotional events stay with us long after the event has passed.

Surprise promotes a pleasant feeling

Observers of human nature have long known if an experience has a surprise element, it is far more powerful and makes us happier. Jerome Kagan, PhD, notes: …The secretion of the molecule dopamine in response to an unexpected event is accompanied by a pleasant feeling.

Some examples:

  • Unexpected praise from a boss is far more effective than if it is anticipated.
  • Gambling is enticing because of the intermittent reward.
  • Music, theatre or art that has a “twist” is more compelling than similarly well-done works that are predictable.
  • Sports games where the under dog won are long remembered over a game where the winner was favored.

Shock Jock, Howard Stern, has made a career out of surprising radio audiences with his comments. People listen to him because they never know what he will say. Stern has fought with sponsors for years over his sensual comments but he does attract a large following. In this year’s presidential election, Donald Trump, a political newcomer has garnered unprecedented news coverage because of his unscripted off beat comments.

If you feel flat or if life is boring and uneventful:

  • Buy an unexpected gift for your sweetheart
  • Wearing a new color or perfume
  • Visit another country or new location
  • Try a new cuisine
  • Learn a new hobby
  • Talk to a stranger on the bus
  • Practice random acts of kindness
  • Listen to an unscripted political candidate with a flair for drama


Everyone can benefit from an unexpected dopamine rush. Try it, you may be surprised at the pleasure response.  It can help with depression.

Surprise works at any age:

It is true that as humans’ age, they lose some of the neurons that secrete dopamine. Seventy year-olds are less motivated than 20-year-olds to visit a new place, meet a new person, or view a novel artistic production because the intensity of the pleasure is diluted. But listening to my speech, everyone in my retirement home smiled when I suggested they do something unusual that would scandalize their children—yes, they were capable of a dopamine rush!

Camille Curtis Foster Contact Me: 801.472.7134/

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Source:  Psychotherapy Network, May/June 2016

Thanks to my adventure-loving husband who always inspires surprise.









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