The brain likes surprises

According to research, we become a happier when good things happen to us (duh!) but the effect is even bigger when good things happen to us unexpectedly:

Emory University and Baylor College of Medicine researchers used Magnetic Resonance Imaging brain scans to measure changes in human brain activity in response to a sequence of pleasurable stimuli.

They used a computer-controlled device to squirt fruit juice or water into the mouths of 25 research participants. The patterns of the squirting were either predictable or unpredictable.

The researchers found that the MRI scans showed a brain area called the nucleus accumbens to be much more active when the subjects received unpredictable patterns of juice and water.


  • Something nice happens that you expect = good
  • Something nice happens unexpectedly = even better

This is interesting in the context of happiness at work because many of the things companies do to make their employees happier are utterly predictable: Summer parties, Christmas parties, Bonuses, team events, and so on happen on an almost completely fixed schedule, which serves to diminish their effectiveness.

This is why we advocate also doing random acts of workplace kindness. According to this research, a small well-meant surprising gesture towards an employee or a team may make them much happier.

So what could you do, to surprise a co-worker today? Here are some examples from previous blog posts:


Your take

Has anyone ever done something that surprised and delighted you at work? Or have you done something like that to you co-workers?

6 thoughts on “The brain likes surprises”

  1. As employees, as customers, as human beings we remember what’s way above “expected” and whatever is below “expected” (even if it’s just a little :)). Whatever is expected, is not memorable. It’s only satisfactory in that very moment and will only last until we don’t get what we expect anymore.

    So yes, in order to create memorable happiness that lasts for a while – the kind that customers or employees talk about when they come home at night, and the one that will survive rough patches – we need to make an extra effort and do something unexpected! Something to WOW them!

    The best WOW’s are surprises that make people go, “Wow, how did you know [that I would love this particular surprise]?” It shows them that we paid attention to them. It makes them feel recognized and “seen”.

  2. Here at The Online 401(k) we call these RAWK’s (Random Act of Workplace Kindness). The team RAWK’s it several times a week. Someone will bring in doughnuts, chocolate, offer to help a coworker, or even make pancakes for the team! An email will go out that there is a RAWK in x location. The unexpected certainly adds to the fun and pleasure!

    Thanks for sharing, Alexander! This is so true! Not only does is work with employees, it obviously works for clients, too. It reminds me of Zappos and how they WOW their clients with surprise shipping upgrades or a handwritten thank you note.

    Keep RAWK’n it!

  3. The other day, when I took a tissue from my tissue box, a chocolate Easter egg dropped out. It was a very nice surprise because I had no idea it was there. I asked around and it turns out one of my colleagues had hidden an egg in each cubicle around Easter. We all discovered or eggs at different times and had way more fun than if she had simply treated us.

  4. In our company we have daily, weekly, as well as monthly incentives for good work. And the unplanned lunch outs are great too. Client testimonials are also awesome. Indeed we are happier when we are surprised by things or people that we never expected to do so.

  5. Hmm, maybe the fact that I expect wonderful things to happen is impairing my ability to be even happier? I do love doing unexpected nice things for other people. There’s never a “wrong” time to put a smile on someone’s face.


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