Finding joy in the familiar: Science-backed strategies for seeing life through fresh eyes


Editor’s note: Shift Your Mindset is a monthly series from CNN’s Mindfulness, But Better team. We talk to experts about how to do things differently to live a better life.

The charmer who once sent shivers down your spine morphs into the familiar face over the breakfast table. The fancy French-door fridge you ogled on the showroom floor now blends in with your other appliances. The fire-engine-red convertible that gave you goose bumps on the test-drive has turned into your regular ride.

This same phenomenon occurs with things that once bothered you: At first you choke on the chlorine cloud at your local pool but soon you hardly notice the smell. Your boss is a yeller, but by now his barking is just background noise.

The new book "Look Again: The Power of Noticing What Was Always There" suggests ways to see everything anew. - Simon & Shuster

The new book “Look Again: The Power of Noticing What Was Always There” suggests ways to see everything anew. – Simon & Shuster

Responding less and less to stimuli that repeat is a human phenomenon that social scientists call habituation. Over time, what once amazed you becomes ordinary. What once seemed awful does, too.

In their new book, “Look Again: The Power of Noticing What Was Always There,” researchers Tali Sharot and Cass R. Sunstein explore how seeing with fresh eyes what you once found exhilarating can improve happiness, relationships, work and community. They also address how no longer ignoring or glossing over the “bad things” can serve as an important motivator — critical, they write, for “fighting foolishness, cruelty, suffering, waste, corruption, discrimination, misinformation and tyranny.”

Here Sharot and Sunstein offer practical strategies for how to harness this reality of human nature to make our lives better.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

CNN: What does the myth that a frog won’t jump out of a pot of boiling water if the temperature is increased gradually enough tell us about habituation?

Cass R. Sunstein: We should take the boiling frog tale seriously but not literally. It captures an element of human nature that has major consequences.

Tali Sharot: While recent science indicates that, in fact, the frog will jump out and therefore survive, what’s more important to us is the analogy suggesting that an agent will habituate to negative circumstances if the changes are very gradual.

Whether it’s getting used to pollution and the effects of climate change, or to horrible things around us like war and racism, we are less likely to notice and have an emotional response to small, incremental changes and therefore less likely to act. And terrible things, like genocide, for example, usually start small.

CNN: Like other myths, the boiling frog story gets oft repeated. How does repetition impact our understanding of truth?

Sharot: When we hear something more than once, our brains spend less time and effort to process it. The first time you hear a statement, for example, “a shrimp’s heart is in its head,” you might try to picture the heart in the head or remember the last time you ate shrimp. But the next time I say it, your brain doesn’t have to process as much, so there’s less of a reaction.

If we’re not surprised by a statement, we assume it’s probably true. This “illusory truth effect” is so strong it’s one of the easiest effects to generate in the lab. If you hear something more than once, you’re more likely to believe it. Nowadays misinformation and fake news pose such a big problem because untrue statements get repeated through retweets, shares, etc.

Sunstein: Recognizing the strength of the illusory truth effect can create a degree of inoculation to defend against falsehoods. You might think to yourself, “I’ve heard that a lot. Maybe I should find out if it’s actually true.” The power of repetition is often underrated. People trying to communicate truthful, valuable messages don’t repeat enough.

"Look Again" authors Tali Sharot (left) and Cass R. Sunstein explore how seeing things with fresh eyes can improve happiness, relationships, work and community. - Michael Lionstar/Ross Lincoln/Harvard University/Courtesy Simon & Shuster

“Look Again” authors Tali Sharot (left) and Cass R. Sunstein explore how seeing things with fresh eyes can improve happiness, relationships, work and community. – Michael Lionstar/Ross Lincoln/Harvard University/Courtesy Simon & Shuster

CNN: How does habituation impact what you call “irritating or harmful” life factors?

Sunstein: Say you’re in a workplace situation where the boss is mean, or coworkers are difficult. We tend to habituate to these factors, which is good in that we don’t suffer as much, but it’s also not good because we don’t try to improve our situation. In a country without freedom or good health care, for example, people can habituate to what’s not good rather than struggling against it. The blessing comes as diminished sensitivity to negative stimuli; the curse is that insensitivity relieves the pressure to change things and maybe make life better.

CNN: How can we take advantage of habituation to foster creative thinking?

Sharot: One creativity study shows that simple changes in your environment, like moving from the office to a cafe, taking a different route to work or just getting up to take a walk, can increase flexible thinking. When our brains are geared for change, we tend to think differently, which leads to creativity.

Big breakthroughs often come when I’m not consciously focusing on or trying to solve a problem. Reading the paper or running helps me think in a more free-form way. Suddenly your unconscious has a chance to free-associate and encode information that may not seem relevant until your mind starts tying it together.

Sunstein: Variety also enhances happiness and well-being by helping us see what’s familiar through new perspectives. The impulse to “mix things up” has deep neurological wisdom. It will help you feel alive in ways you might not have known you were missing.

CNN: Does seeing the world differently require big changes?

Sunstein: Even small changes can have a big effect. Waking up from a nightmare about someone you love dying can bring tremendous relief that they’re still alive. Before the dream you might have known that you had a good thing, but afterward you feel it, too. A vivid mental image restored color to a part of your life that had gone gray. You can turn the gray parts of your life colorful through even small shifts, with imaginative exercises and modest physical changes.

CNN: What do you recommend for people considering big life changes?

Sunstein: The data we have suggests, if you’re seriously thinking of making a life change, you probably should. Take that as a rule of thumb, not ironclad advice. Research shows that when people on the fence about moving to a different city, taking a new job or some other big life change do take the plunge, they report being better off months later. This highlights the enlivening effect of a plunge and suggests that people who are indecisive probably err too much on the side of caution.

CNN: How can we increase pleasure?

Sharot: The fact that our brains stop paying attention to things that don’t change — whether we consider them good or bad — has some counterintuitive results. If you ask people whether they’ll enjoy listening to a piece of music more uninterrupted or with breaks, 99% of them say uninterrupted. But they’re wrong. Study participants who listened to music intermittently actually rated their enjoyment higher than those who listened continuously. This suggests that we should break up activities we enjoy with short pauses to spark even greater pleasure by reducing the habituation that will diminish the amazingness.

CNN: Should we also break up unpleasant activities?

Sunstein: No. Motor through terrible experiences. If you’re cleaning up a room that’s gotten catastrophic — like my office, right now — do it all at once. If you stick with it, you’ll habituate and hate it less. But if you break it up into segments, you’re going to hate it each time.

CNN: Do people get more pleasure out of material objects or experiences?

Sunstein: Experiences. Studies show that our satisfaction with material goods falls sharply over time, while satisfaction with experiences often increases. You might stop noticing a new possession after a short while, but meaningful experiences seem to bring lasting benefits.

CNN: Sounds like we should skip pricey products in favor of more vacations! What does the science suggest?

Sharot: People on tropical vacations surveyed to find out when they were happiest mentioned firsts repeatedly — the first cocktail or first moment they saw the ocean. We learned that people reached peak happiness 43 hours after arrival. After that, the joy started dwindling. This tells us that we will likely be happier if, instead of one long one, we take more, shorter vacations.

Sunstein: Plus, a lot of the fun of vacation comes from anticipating the trip and then remembering it afterward. The pleasure from the anticipation and the remembering will be high even for a short holiday. And more vacations mean more variety.

Jessica DuLong is a Brooklyn, New York-based journalist, book collaborator, writing coach and the author of “Saved at the Seawall: Stories From the September 11 Boat Lift” and “My River Chronicles: Rediscovering the Work That Built America.”

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