Why We Get Bored of the Best Things in Life—and How to Fight It

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Chris Panicker

Have you ever wanted something so badly, gotten it, and then, after a bit of time has passed, begun to feel like maybe you want something else instead—despite the fact that the thing you acquired or achieved is objectively positive? Maybe you desperately wanted to be in a relationship after years of being single—and then one day you found yourself in the partnership of your dreams, feeling bored and lusting after just about anyone who wasn’t your partner? In all likelihood, nothing was wrong with you or your relationship. You’d simply done what your brain has evolved to do: habituate.

“Habituation is a phenomenon by which we respond less and less to things that are constant, or that change very gradually,” says neuroscientist Tali Sharot, PhD. It’s the subject of a new book she co-authored with Nudge author and Harvard Law School professor Cass Sunstein called Look Again: The Power of Noticing What Was Always There, which describes how despite its many benefits, habituation can cause us to appreciate even the most positive things less over time, and explores how this can sabotage our happiness—and even cause us to blow up our lives.

Why We Habituate

To illustrate just how efficiently our brains adapt, Dr. Sharot says that if you walk into a bakery that smells strongly of freshly baked bread, studies show you’ll cease to detect the smell within just 20 minutes. “Your olfactory neurons will have stopped responding, because they stop responding to things that don’t change,” she says. This is true of all of our neurons, she says—they stop responding, or respond less intensely, to things in our life which are constant. “These could be things that have brought us joy in the past, like a comfortable home or a new relationship,” she says. “But we also stop responding to things that might have felt quite bad in the beginning—we adapt to them.”

In general, Dr. Sharot says habituation is beneficial and that we, along with all animals, evolved the ability for good reason. “It helps for survival by ensuring that we have more resources [e.g. neurons] ready to respond to new things,” she says. “Otherwise, we’ll continue responding to everything. This is the adaptive benefit.”

This decrease in the amount of stimulation we experience from things that are constant in our lives is also helpful from a survival standpoint because it fuels motivation, says Dr. Sharot. Habituation is what pushed our species to continue exploring and innovating—without it, we might still be living in caves. “You were probably really excited about your first entry-level job. But if you were as excited about it 10 years later as you were at the beginning, you wouldn't be motivated to get a promotion or move ahead,” says Dr. Sharot.

Habituation can also help us move on from difficult life events, such as the loss of a loved one. Over time, you will feel that loss less profoundly as you habituate to it. This, too, is adaptive, as it allows us to continue moving forward in our lives no matter the challenge.

When Is Habituation Detrimental?

Despite its benefits, habituation can be a hindrance to happiness—as anyone who has ever married their dream girl or guy, or achieved a life-long career goal, can likely attest. This is true because it doesn’t discriminate between the unchanging stimuli to which it is helping you adapt—as illustrated above, it is just as effective at numbing you to the positive things in life as it is to the negative.

“Everyone has something good in their life, whether it’s an interesting job or a loving relationship or a nice view outside their window, but those things give you less joy over time because you don’t notice them anymore due to habituation,” says Dr. Sharot. To illustrate this point, she notes that data shows that people get a happiness boost from marriage, but that it only lasts for two years before their happiness returns to pre-marriage levels.

Even if you continue to understand, intellectually, that certain aspects of your life, such as your partner, job, house, etc., are positive, Dr. Sharot and Sunstein say there’s a difference between knowing and feeling, and that your feelings tend to habituate more quickly than your thoughts. This is because “knowing” is a newer ability for humans, from an evolutionary standpoint, than “feeling,” so we’ve become more adept at habituating to the former than the latter. So despite what your brain is telling you about the reality of your current circumstances, e.g. that your wife is a catch, you may have trouble feeling as though this is true.

Such habituation to the positive elements of our lives can have all sorts of negative impacts. In addition to causing our happiness levels to drop, it can provoke us to do things we might later regret—like having an affair, quitting a perfectly good job, or buying an impractical sports car we can’t afford. And according to Sunstein and Dr. Sharot, it’s a significant driver of the much-dreaded midlife crisis.

The duo explains that happiness has a U-shaped curve over the span of a lifetime—it starts high in kids and teenagers, and then slowly declines over time, reaching rock bottom in midlife before climbing upwards again in the latter third of life (up until the final years). “We don’t know what is causing this u-shape, but one possibility is that midlife is often the time at which there is the most amount of same-ness,” says Dr. Sharot.

As a child, and into your twenties, she says, you tend to be learning a lot and having a variety of novel experiences, but by midlife, many of your commitments have been made and your life has stabilized, leaving less room for novelty. “Maybe you’ve lived in the same house for a while, or been in the same relationship for a while, or you don't travel perhaps as much because you have children,” says Dr. Sharot. “You might be at the top of your profession, but while before it was about striving and developing, now it’s more about maintaining.” These decreases in novelty and learning lead to increased habituation, she says.

How to Appreciate the Good Things in Life Anew

Fortunately, there are ways to disrupt this type of habituation in order to see your world anew and, ideally, appreciate the good things you have rather than sabotaging them. This is known as dishabituation.

“I’ll give you a metaphor,” says Dr. Sharot. “On the inside cover of our book, there is an image of clouds of different colors—blue, green, yellow, with a little fixation dot in the middle. The idea is that if you fixate on the dot and don’t move your eyes, after about 30 seconds those colors more or less turn into gray. And if you’re really good at not moving your eyes at all, they turn to white. This happens because the neurons in your brain are getting the exact same input from those colors, and so you stop noticing them. But the moment you move your eyes, you’ll see the colors again immediately, because now different neurons are getting different inputs. And so that’s a good metaphor for life as well—there are a lot of colors around us, but because they’ve been there so long, they might become gray.”

Dishabituation can be achieved in two ways. The first is to take a break—remove yourself from your environment for a period of time, however short, and then return to it without making any permanent changes. If your dissatisfaction seems to be stemming from your home life, for example, the solution may be to take a weekend, night, or even a few hours away from it. “What usually happens is that when people come back, they appreciate whatever it was they were habituated to again,” says Dr. Sharot.

The new book quotes Julia Roberts, who once told an interviewer that her ideal day is, essentially, the type of ordinary day at home with kids that many would find tedious. She then attributed her ability to appreciate these moments to the fact that she often leaves home for long periods of time for work. “​​If I was here for the last 18 years doing that all day, every day, it probably wouldn’t still have pixie dust on it. But I go away, and I miss it so much. Then I come back, and it kind of resparkles,” she said.

They also cite research in the book showing that this is more than just an anecdotal phenomenon. In the study referenced, some participants enjoyed music with small breaks, and others enjoyed it with no breaks. They then rated their experiences, and those who had the small breaks, researchers found, enjoyed their music more so than those who didn’t. This is because they were given less time to habituate to the music, which meant that it ultimately brought them more joy overall. As Tibor Scitovsky, an economist they quote in the book, so eloquently puts it, “Pleasure results from incomplete and intermittent satisfaction of desires.” (This is something to keep in mind when it comes time for your next Netflix binge—if you break a series up over time, you might actually enjoy it more than you will if you watch it all in one sitting.)

Of course, Dr. Sharot and Sunstein acknowledge that it’s not always possible to take a break, however short, from whatever it is you need to dishabituate from. If this is the case for you, they recommend engaging in a visualization exercise promoted by Laurie Santos, a cognitive scientist and Yale’s ‘happiness professor,’ wherein you imagine your life without all of the things you currently have, and do so in great detail, until you provoke an emotional reaction to the absence of those things. In a sense, the desired result of this exercise is similar to that of a gratitude exercise in that it ideally helps you re-appreciate the things you already have.

The second way to dishabituate, says Dr. Sharot, is to insert variety into your routines. “This may involve visiting different places, maybe even living in different places, making friends with different kinds of people, working on different types of projects at work, or it can even be taking a new class or learning a new skill outside of work,” she says. “Variety is the opposite of habituation, because it puts you in a state of learning. Learning means change, and you can’t habituate to change.”

And infusing variety into your life may be more important than you think. Sunstein and Dr. Sharot say that some people value such change so much that they will sabotage certain aspects of their lives in order to achieve it.

In general, they posit that humans tend to care about three things. The first is how happy they are—if they’re experiencing more smiles than tears in their lives overall. The second is how much meaning they have in their life, whether that’s gleaned through family, career, volunteer work, or something else. And the final thing is variety. To some people, variety is so important that they’re willing to sacrifice the first two for the third, meaning that they may take hits on happiness and meaning in order to simply shake up their lives. These hits can potentially be avoided, however, by strategically infusing variety into your life in ways that don’t jeopardize its positive constants. For example, if you find ways to mix things up with your partner, this could, hypothetically, stop you from having an affair or asking for a divorce.

To this end, Dr. Sharot and Sunstein point to intel from relationship expert Esther Perel as an example of how dishabituation can help long-term relationships. “She asks people when they are the most attracted to their partners, and she usually finds that there are two types of answers that are very common,” says Dr. Sharot. “The first is when they see their partner in a new situation—talking to a stranger, for example—which is the idea of variety. And this could be achieved by trying new things with your partner. The second, they say, is when they’re away from their partner and then come back, which is the idea of a break.”

Some companies, says Dr. Sharot, recognize the effectiveness of dishabituation in boosting not only employee satisfaction but also efficacy, and in order to facilitate it, they’ve developed programs where an employee might rotate into a different division for a few months before returning to their original assignment. This introduces both a break and variety into the job. “When these individuals return to their own division, they’re able to see the things that need to be changed and also be more motivated to change them,” says Dr. Sharot.

Of course, dishabituation can also boost happiness by doing the opposite of helping you appreciate what you have—it can help you change a situation that is legitimately making you unhappy, but that you have habituated to in order to endure it. “There are negative things in our life which we could potentially change, but because of habituation, we don't notice them as much. And you could say, ‘Well, that's good. We don't feel bad about the bad things.’ But it also means that we're not motivated to change them,” says Dr. Sharot.

Not sure if something in your life genuinely needs to be changed, or if you’ve just habituated? A good way to find out is to mix things up with either some variety or a break (or both). If, after trying to dishabituate from the relationship or job or friendship or commute or whatever it may be, you still feel unhappy with it or, even more telling, even less happier with it, that might mean you need to make a more permanent change.

So if you’re feeling ‘meh’ about some aspect of your life, or even deeply dissatisfied, it may be that you’ve simply habituated to it and need to work to appreciate it once more. The key is shaking things up, but not in a drastic way. Even just taking up something new—a new hobby or friendship, for example—may help.

That dishabituation is a relatively easy fix to what may feel like major life problems should be good news for those not keen to wreck their homes, burn down their careers, or become the tragic stereotypical mid-lifer. As it turns out, those unhappy feelings probably don’t mean you need to sleep with your nanny or shave your head and move to a commune. At the very least, you might want to try a salsa class, or a long weekend away, first.

Originally Appeared on GQ


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