A few years ago, I had a sort-of-existential debate with a friend.
He insisted that it’s best to fill your days with variety — meeting different people, eating different foods, and basically never knowing when you wake up how the rest of your day will turn out.
I countered that I found comfort and even happiness in the mundanities that filled my days — drinking black tea at the same time every morning, walking the same route to and from work, and reading a book chapter every night before going to sleep.
We never quite reached a resolution, but I was intrigued by some recent scientific findings that help validate my behaviour (ha!).
The research, which hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed or published, found that having a daily routine is associated with feeling that your life is meaningful. In May, one of the authors, Samantha J. Heintzelman, a graduate student in psychology at the University of Missouri, presented the findings at the Psychological Science convention.
For one study, Heintzelman and her coauthor Laura A. King, a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri, recruited a group of participants to take a survey that measured their preference for routine. Participants indicated how much they agreed with statements like, “I do pretty much the same things every day” and, “I find that a well-ordered mode of life with regular hours is the one for me.”
Participants also indicated how much they agreed with statements like, “Overall, my life is meaningful.”
As it turned out, participants who had a greater penchant for routine were more likely to find their lives meaningful.
In a second study, the researchers asked participants how often they drank coffee, and whether they had a coffee “routine” (as in, whether they drank it in the same time and place and took their coffee the same way every day). Participants also responded to those same prompts about how meaningful they found their lives.
Sure enough, regular caffeinators who had a coffee routine were more likely to find their lives meaningful.
Of course, the researchers can’t say for sure that having a routine causes people to experience their lives as meaningful — it could also be that feeling like your life is meaningful leads you to practice a routine.
But when I spoke with Heintzelman a few weeks after the convention, she explained that routines may help make our lives meaningful because they create a sense of coherence. In the last decade, psychologists have determined that a meaningful life is one that feels significant, purposeful, and coherent — but Heintzelman said that last facet has been relatively understudied.
When you have daily routines, Heintzelman said you help create that sense of coherence. “You can sort of have a sense of the self from one time to the next,” she said, as in, “this is what I do or this is who I am.” And that in turn can make it easier to find meaning in your life.
In other words, while meaning can come from something extraordinary, like giving birth to a child or hiking a mountain at sunrise, it can also easily come from the seemingly boring stuff.
At the same time, Heintzelman was quick to point out that, when it comes to daily routines, boundaries are important. “A life that’s shackled by routine, I don’t expect to be very good for meaning,” she said.
The sweet spot seems to be having a “base of a routine [to] which to sort of return from these novel experiences,” as Heintzelman put it. After you come home from that hiking trip, it’s nice to be able to settle back into your tea-drinking and bedtime-book-reading.
Ultimately, Heintzelman said, it’s about “letting ourselves just feel the meaning that emerges from the more mundane aspects of our daily life.”
This research hardly resolves the debate between me and my friend.
If anything, it suggests that we’re both right. Routines can be helpful to the extent that they make your life and identity feel stable. But doing too much of the same thing can be suffocating. Future research might look at the specific types of routines that contribute to our sense of meaning in life — and those that detract from it.
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