Science-backed strategies for seeing life with fresh eyes

By | February 23, 2024

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

The charmer who once sent shivers down your spine turns into a familiar face at the breakfast table. The beautiful French door refrigerator that beckoned you on the showroom floor now matches your other appliances. The fire engine red convertible that gave you goosebumps during the test drive has become your regular ride.

This same phenomenon occurs with things that once bothered you: at first you choke on the cloud of chlorine at your local swimming pool, but soon you barely notice the smell anymore. Your boss is shouting, but his barking is now just background noise.

The new book

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

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

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

Here, Sharot and Sunstein offer practical strategies for how we can 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 mean that a Frog does not jump out of a pot of boiling water If the temperature is increased gradually enough, can you tell us something about habituation?

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

Tali Sharot: Although recent science indicates that the frog will in fact jump out and therefore survive, what is more important to us is the analogy that suggests that an agent will become accustomed to negative conditions if the changes occur very gradually.

Whether it’s adjusting to pollution and the effects of climate change, or to terrible things around us like war and racism, we are less likely to notice and emotionally respond to small, incremental changes and therefore less likely to take action. And terrible things, like genocide, usually start small.

CNN: Like other myths, the story of the boiling frog is often repeated. How does repetition affect our understanding of the truth?

Sharot: When we hear something more than once, our brains spend less time and effort processing it. The first time you hear a statement, for example, “A shrimp’s heart is in its head,” try imagining the heart in its 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 reaction.

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

Sunstein: Recognizing the power of the illusory truth effect can create a degree of inoculation to defend against falsehoods. You may be thinking to yourself, “I’ve heard that many times. Maybe I should find out if it’s really true.” The power of repetition is often underestimated. People trying to convey truthful, valuable messages are not repeated 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 of Simon & Shuster

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

Sunstein: Suppose you are in a work situation where the boss is mean or the coworkers are difficult. We tend to get used to these factors, which is good because we don’t suffer as much, but it’s also not good because we don’t try to improve our situation. For example, in a country without freedom or good health care, people can get used to what is not good, instead of fighting against it. The blessing comes as reduced sensitivity to negative stimuli; the curse is that insensitivity relieves the pressure to change things and perhaps make life better.

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

Sharot: A study on creativity shows that simple changes in your environment, such as going from the office to a cafe, taking a different route to work or simply getting up to go for a walk, can increase flexible thinking. When our brains are ready for change, we tend to think differently, which leads to creativity.

Big breakthroughs often come when I’m not consciously focusing on a problem or trying to solve it. Reading the newspaper or going for a run helps me to think in a more free way. Suddenly, your unconscious mind has the opportunity to freely associate and encode information that may seem irrelevant until your mind begins to tie it together.

Sunstein: Variety also increases happiness and well-being by helping us see what is familiar from new perspectives. The impulse to “mix things up” is based on deep neurological wisdom. It will help you feel alive in ways you may not have known you were missing.

CNN: Does a different view of the world require major changes?

Sunstein: Even small changes can have a big impact. Waking up from a nightmare about the death of someone you love can provide enormous relief because he or she is still alive. Before the dream you may have known you had something good, but afterward you feel it too. A vivid mental image brought color back to a part of your life that had turned gray. You can make the gray parts of your life colorful even through small changes, with imaginative exercises and modest physical changes.

CNN: What do you recommend to people considering big changes in their lives?

Sunstein: The data we have suggests that if you’re seriously thinking about making a life change, you probably should. Take that as a rule of thumb, and not as ironclad advice. Research shows that when people who are hesitant about moving to another city, taking a new job or making another major change in their lives take the plunge, they report months later that they are better off. This emphasizes the enlivening effect of a dive and suggests that people who are indecisive are likely to err on the side of caution.

CNN: How can we increase the fun?

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 if they like listening to a piece of music uninterrupted or with breaks, 99% of them say uninterrupted. But they are wrong. Research participants who listened to music intermittently actually rated their enjoyment higher than those who listened continuously. This suggests that we should interrupt activities we enjoy with short breaks to create even more pleasure by reducing the habituation that will diminish the amazingness.

CNN: Should we also end unpleasant activities?

Sunstein: No. Go through terrible experiences. If you’re cleaning a room that has turned catastrophic (like my office right now), do it in one go. If you stick with it, you’ll get used to it less and hate it less. But if you break it into segments, you’ll hate it every time.

CNN: Did people get more pleasure from material objects or experiences?

Sunstein: Experiences. Research shows that our satisfaction with material goods decreases sharply over time, while satisfaction with experiences often increases. You may not notice any new possessions after a short time, but meaningful experiences seem to provide lasting benefits.

CNN: Looks like we should skip expensive products in favor of more vacations! What does science suggest?

Sharot: People surveyed on tropical vacations to find out when they were happiest were repeatedly listed first: the first cocktail or the first moment they saw the ocean. We found that people reached their maximum happiness 43 hours after arrival. Then the joy started to wane. This tells us that we will probably be happier if, instead of one long vacation, we take more and shorter vacations.

Sunstein: Plus, much of the fun of vacationing comes from anticipating the trip and remembering it afterwards. The pleasure of anticipation and memory will be great, even for a short holiday. And more holidays mean more variety.

Jessica DuLong is a Brooklyn, New York-based journalist, book contributor, writing coach and 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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