Personal Growth

This Simple Trick Keeps All Your Favorite Experiences Feeling Fresh and New

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You know how great it feels to find a new favorite restaurant? Suddenly, you're finding any excuse to go to that cool spot with the sushi burritos. Friends coming into town? Sushi burritos. Need a snack on the way to a meeting? Sushi burritos, obviously. Woke up in the middle of the night with a singular hunger? 24-hour sushi burritos, baby. But eventually, all that seaweed, rice, and ginger starts to get to you. You can't imagine going back. Well, not all is lost. Next time you order a California-roll burrito, instead of grabbing it in two hands and going to town, try unwrapping it and eating it with utensils instead. You may gain a new appreciation for an old fave.

Old News

That feeling of diminishing returns as you continue to experience something that at one time gave you pleasure is called "hedonic adaptation," and it's a well-documented example of how the human brain just isn't wired to be happy all the time. In one of the best-known studies of the effect, researchers found that lottery-winners weren't substantially happier a year after their big take-home than they had been before. It's true: Even a million bucks gets old after a while.

So the fact that happiness fades over time has a name — great. But why does hedonic adaptation happen in the first place? According to one paper, the effect has two causes, working in tandem. While they sound like common sense, they also point toward a solution for more lasting bliss. First, when something is new, it often causes a flurry of happiness-causing events all at once. You get a new car, and you're delighted to discover each of its features one by one. Every drive brings new wonders (this thing came with french fry holders?!). But you can only discover new things for so long, and eventually, the stream of exciting features is going to trickle to a halt.

The other part of the equation is that even if something new provides a lasting benefit — say, if you had won a million dollars — after enough time, that new benefit just becomes the new normal. There's eventually a point where your brain just gets so accustomed to the new benefit that it doesn't consider it a benefit anymore.

An Old New World

According to a new study by Ed O'Brien of the University of Chicago and Robert Smith of Ohio State University, it's entirely possible to ease the hedonic adaptation effect. All you need to do is try to liven up the things you're accustomed to by experiencing them in new ways. For example, have you ever tried eating popcorn with chopsticks?

No, seriously, that's what this study is all about. The 68 participants in the experiment were divided into two groups: one with chopsticks and one without. Both groups were told to eat the popcorn slowly, one piece at a time, but it wasn't the slow pace that made some participants enjoy their snack more. The chopstick users reported a much more pleasurable experience than those that used their boring old fingers. In another experiment, even people asked to come up with unconventional ways to drink water had a better time hydrating. There is a way to take this too far, however — people in a third study who were asked to watch a familiar video upside down didn't enjoy it any more than those who watched it again normally, though those asked to watch it with their hands cupped around their eyes like goggles had a grand old time.

The takeaway? If you're feeling like you're stuck in a rut, you might not need to make any huge changes. Try switching things up just a little bit — you just might see all of your old favorites in a whole new light.

Small changes add up over time. Learn to keep your happiness replenished and your personal goals in sight in "One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way" by Robert Maurer, Ph.D. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

What Is Happiness?

Written by Reuben Westmaas July 17, 2018

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