It’s another average Monday evening and I’m seriously hungry. Without fail, I enter a debate: Should I eat out, cook rice or ramen (yes, those two meals are the peak of my dorm cooking) or eat in the dining hall? Most nights, the dining hall wins, mostly because it feels free, and I can eat as much as I want. Tonight, however, nothing on the menu looks appetizing. I muddle over whether to get lamb marsala, beef stir fry or the classic pizza or burger.
My gut reaction is to skip the dining hall and venture down South University Avenue or State Street in search of safe, dependable take-out. Convincing myself this is the right idea, I gather my things and prepare to leave my room. But wait. Something stops me. I didn’t come to the University of Michigan to operate within my comfort zone, including its culinary element. I came here to try something new.
A few days later, I am strolling through the Michigan Union, traveling back to my dorm for my 3 p.m. political science class on Zoom. Suddenly, the study lounge — which bears a slight resemblance to the esteemed law library, in my opinion — catches my eye. Intuitively, I want to keep walking and plop down in the black leather chair that awaits me in my dorm, but I can’t help but feel that the moment is yet another opportunity waiting to be seized. I meander through the desks, the old wood creaking beneath me, take a seat by the fireplace and open my laptop.
In my short time as a student on campus, I have made it a priority to challenge my comfort zone. Perhaps eating two plates of beef stir fry and taking a class in the Union is not the best definition of “spontaneous and exciting,” but for me, it is. The meal was delicious, and the hour spent in a Hogwartsian lounge will lead me to come back more often. Yet, I’d have never known about either of them if I hadn’t ventured beyond what is secure.
As humans, we like what we are accustomed to. The mere-exposure effect, as first developed by psychologist Robert Zajonc, states that “individuals show an increased preference (or liking) for a stimulus as a consequence of repeated exposure to that stimulus.” Additionally, we are guided by our brain’s dual-processing systems. System 1 is our “brain’s fast, automatic and intuitive approach” to situations. System 2, comparatively, is the mind’s “slower, analytical mode where reason dominates.”
In taking these scientific observations together, it is no surprise that we prefer options that we are familiar with. Yet, aren’t we ever curious about that Greek restaurant we haven’t tried? The abstract red sculpture outside the UMMA? A class about something we have zero prior knowledge about?
To some students, these decisions are nothing special and, frankly, while it may be understandable, it is equally disappointing. In underutilizing the resources available to us, we are failing ourselves. We are students at a university offering a plethora of diverse opportunities, both in and out of the classroom. Not to mention the varied combinations of foods, study spaces and shopping that we often take for granted. Even the weather has variety. Parking too — much to the displeasure of campus visitors — has its variety.
Quite simply, I’m baffled by the number of students who are stuck in a routine, let alone the same routine. Yes, predictability is good, but too much of it can be a detriment to our mental health. Winston-Salem State University psychologist Rich Walker found that people who “engage in a variety of experiences are more likely to retain positive emotions and minimize negative (emotions) than those who have fewer experiences.” Additionally, cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus notes that a greater sense of personal growth and purpose is associated with living life to one’s fullest (eudaimonia).
As we enter the midst of club recruitment season, I challenge you to find an organization that sparks your curiosity — even if it’s not the exact resume-booster you seek. It is easy, especially as a freshman, to come here and fall prey to the exact same experiences you had in high school. One of my friends from home is rushing a fraternity, simply because he doesn’t know what else is out there. Students, don’t do that! Educate yourself, then seek out and participate in student organizations that provide internal satisfaction, not external validation.
Perhaps I’m waxing poetic or sappy, but I’ve always believed that diversifying our experiences is what college is all about. There’s a whole world out there, and we only have so much time to live. We need to talk to that person sitting by themselves, go to a place that we ordinarily wouldn’t and try our best to shake things up at every juncture along the way. Otherwise, how will we truly know what we enjoy? Now, pardon me, but I need to get in line for more beef stir fry.
Sam Woiteshek is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.