Have you noticed how three days into your Hawaii vacation, you’ve stopped noticing the spectacular sunsets out your hotel window? Or maybe the guy who made you laugh out loud on your first date barely makes you chuckle these days?

Father and son hugging on a dock with sun setting over the lake

This is due to what scientists call “hedonic adaptation”—the tendency to derive less enjoyment from happy experiences as time passes. Things that spark joy and wonder initially can become routine and less pleasurable after repeated, unvarying exposure—which, in turn, affects your ability to appreciate the good things in life and maintain your happiness.

Now, a new book called Look Again provides a wonderful primer for understanding how hedonic adaptation works and what to do about it. The authors, neuroscientist Tali Sharot and Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein, don’t just explore how hedonic adaptation affects our well-being—they also offer practical tips for avoiding habituation to our experiences so we can derive more wonder, joy, and positive change in our lives.

How we habituate

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Your brain is a prediction machine, constantly scanning your surroundings for relevant information. This means your brain stops alerting you to things that don’t need your full, immediate attention—which, unfortunately, might include things like the road you’re driving on or hearing once again about your spouse’s job woes.

“The principle is simple: When something surprising or unexpected happens, your brain will respond strongly. But, when everything is predictable, your brain will respond less, and sometimes not at all,” write the authors.

A lot of the time, this is fine, as we couldn’t possibly be attentive to every experience all of the time. But when we want to savor good experiences, adaptation will work against us, keeping us from noticing or enjoying the things in our lives that matter.

“The good things in life (whatever your fancy—amazing food, great sex, expensive cars) will trigger a burst of joy if you experience them occasionally. But once those experiences become frequent, daily perhaps, they stop producing real pleasure,” write the authors.

How to stop getting used to good things

Is there nothing we can do about this? On the contrary, say the authors. There are several ways to re-spark joy or pleasure in your life, by slowing down your tendency to habituate. Here are some of their suggestions.

1. Take a break from things you like (but not things you don’t like). It may seem counterintuitive, but taking breaks from the things you love can actually help you appreciate them more. As one study recounted in the book found, even interrupting music you are listening to can spark more appreciation for it afterward (in spite of your expectations).

“To dishabituate to something (a certain food, a loving spouse, a great job, the warmth of sunlight, the blue of the ocean), we need to stay away from it for a while, so that its goodness surprises us again,” write the authors.

The opposite is true for unpleasant experiences. For example, if you take on a nasty cleaning project, decide to take a break from it, and come back to it later, your happiness will dip; it will feel as if you’re approaching the task for the first time (without the benefit of having habituated to any unpleasantness). Instead, it’s best to “get it over with” when it comes to bad experiences, at least if you want to reduce unpleasant feelings.

2. Focus on learning and experiencing (instead of possessions). When we become immune to the pleasures around us, we become bored and restless. Rather than exchanging what we have for different things or people, we can re-enliven our experience by focusing on learning something new. This can mean anything from asking our closest friends more intimate questions to learning a new language.

As another study in the book found, people who reported on their happiness every few minutes while playing a new game found their greatest happiness occurred as they first learned how to play, not when they won money from playing. Learning is intrinsically rewarding, write the authors, spiking a dose of dopamine in the brain that can make you feel happy and alive.

“You can habituate to things—a fancy car, a large-screen TV—but you don’t habituate to the joy of learning because learning by definition is change,” they write.

Similarly, the pleasure that comes from experiencing fun things lasts longer than the pleasure of owning material things—and may even increase over time. This is likely because experiences enhance our social relationships, confirm our self-identity, and evoke fewer social comparisons more than material goods do.

3. Give to others over yourself. The pleasure of giving keeps on giving, while the pleasure of owning fades with time. As a study in the book showed, giving people $5 to spend on themselves or on someone else both led to spikes in people’s happiness. But those who gave to others found their happiness declined less quickly over time.

“Giving usually provides a greater sense of meaning than getting, and this . . . suggests that the benefit from doing something meaningful for others habituates more slowly,” the authors write.

Book cover for (Atria/One Signal Publishers, 2024, 288 pages)

4. Don’t be afraid of change. Having a greater variety of experiences in your life can make life more “psychologically rich.” If this sounds interesting, you can try to surprise yourself or make changes to your routines that will help you appreciate your life more fully.

Making large changes in your life—like changing homes, jobs, or spouses—shouldn’t be taken lightly, of course. But sometimes it’s needed in order to grow. Holding ourselves back from doing something that might change our life for the better can sometimes lead to long-term regret.

On the other hand, people often predict that they’ll be much less happy after a big life change than they might actually be, say the authors. That’s because people habituate to the difficulties of uprooting themselves, too, perhaps making the pain of transitioning short-lasting.

5. Mix up your routines and surprise yourself. Making changes to the way we typically do things can help us see them anew. This is why it might be best to try a new restaurant once in a while, so your favorite haunt doesn’t lose its luster. Trying to surprise ourselves now and then helps keep our experiences fresh.

Changing routines has the added benefit of sparking creativity. For example, one study found that after people relocate to a different country, their ability to solve creative puzzles goes up. Even something much more mundane—going from walking to sitting or from sitting to walking—can increase creativity, because it primes the brain to focus on what’s different, allowing you to consider something from a new angle.

As the authors note, organizations can use this knowledge to increase creativity in their workforce. “For example, they may change employees’ physical surroundings, encourage employees to train in fields very different from their own, create diverse teams with different kinds of expertise, or ask employees to rotate through different kinds of jobs.”

We get used to bad things, too

Hedonic adaptation doesn’t just happen for things that make us happy, though; it also works for unpleasant experiences. For example, a noxious odor or an annoyingly noisy neighbor may not bother us as much over time, as we habituate to those irritants with repeated exposure.

Nevertheless, even in these circumstances, it may be helpful to foil our tendency to stop noticing or feeling our discomfort so that we address underlying problems, such as cleaning our septic system or talking to our neighbors about the noise.

Hedonic adaptation also affects our tendency to lie or promote false information, write the authors, as the discomfort or shame this normally produces will lessen with repetition—something we may want to keep in mind during our upcoming election season.

The authors point out another alarming trend: how easily we adapt to unpleasant experiences like addiction, discrimination, homelessness, or even global warming. Hedonic adaptation can lead us to stop caring about persistent issues like these, because they seem less salient and worthy of our attention. That can lead to complacency.

“Habituation ensures that our sensation and feelings will not be an adequate guide to what is good or bad, safe or dangerous, and so we need to find ways to evaluate risks objectively,” they write.

Overall, their message is that it’s important to keep in mind our very human tendency to adapt to our circumstances, good and bad. If we understand how hedonic adaptation works, we can make changes in our personal lives and in our social policies that can lead to greater well-being for all.

“Once we become aware of the rules, we can make seen what should be salient but is not, and perhaps make less salient what should be of no importance,” they write.

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