Humans

Researchers have found a simple trick to make old experiences feel fresh again

It seems inevitable. When we grow older, time seems to speed up as we experience the same things over and over again, and part of it’s because even our favourite things in life have become, sadly, no longer new to us.

But is there another way? New research has uncovered a simple trick anyone can do that seems to breathe new life and enjoyment into activities we’ve performed countless times before, making old experiences seem fresh all over again.

The key, according to consumer behaviour researcher Robert Smith from Ohio State University, is trying to experience familiar things in new, unconventional ways.

Doing this – the thinking goes – can disrupt our inevitable adaptation (and therefore immunity) to the newness of repeated experiences and activities, helping us revitalise our sense of novel enjoyment in them.

That kind of adaptation is what’s called hedonic adaptation – an observed phenomenon where the boost in happiness when we experience new things inevitably fades as we adjust to our changed circumstances.

But that adjustment can effectively be prevented, Smith says, as long as we keep doing things in fresh and unconventional ways that we’re not accustomed to.

“This occurs because unconventional methods invite an immersive ‘first-time’ perspective on the consumption object,” Smith and fellow researcher Ed O’Brien from the University of Chicago explain in their paper.

Okay, so it still all sounds a bit like a Jedi mind trick, but the experiments the pair conducted in their research point out just how simple these kinds of disruptions can be.

In one experiment, 68 participants were summoned to a lab to eat popcorn. The kicker was, only half the group were allowed to use their hands.

The other half had to eat popcorn with chopsticks. Admittedly – a fairly facile and ridiculous disruption of a generally common experience – but when the researchers surveyed the popcorn eaters afterward, those using chopsticks enjoyed eating it more than those who used their hands.

“When you eat popcorn with chopsticks, you pay more attention and you are more immersed in the experience,” Smith says.

“It’s like eating popcorn for the first time.”

In other experiments – in which people were tasked with finding novel ways to drink water or were made to watch a video in an unconventional way – those volunteers also rated their enjoyment as higher than controls who performed the same activities in conventional ways.

Of course, all these examples sound a bit silly, unrealistic, even trite – they’re not really things you would ever specifically try to do in the real world.

But the point nonetheless remains: if you can find ways to surprise yourself in how you experience your favourite things – which may have become dull or overly familiar – you could just stand to rediscover elements of what you loved about them in the first place.

“This is because of something well-known to psychologists: when something seems new, people pay more attention to it,” the researchers explain in The Conversation.

“And when people pay more attention to something enjoyable, they tend to enjoy it more.”

If you think it sounds made up, the researchers point out it’s actually a psychological trick businesses around the world are already exploiting – like the dark dining phenomenon, where diners eat meals in pitch black restaurants, rediscovering the pleasure of eating in uniquely constrained circumstances.

“It may not be anything special about darkness that makes us enjoy food more,” Smith says.

“It may be the mere fact that dining in the dark is unusual.”

We don’t advocate turning the lights off in your kitchen at dinner time, but the same kind of approach may go a ways to helping you rekindle some brightness in your own former passions that have grown dim with time.

At the very least, it could be good for the environment – lessening our empty compulsion to buy new things to satiate ourselves, discarding the old toys when they fail to fill the void.

“This presents a rare solution to the nearly universal phenomenon of satiation, or the declining enjoyment that comes with familiarity,” the researchers explain in The Conversation.

“As long as you can find new and interesting ways to interact with something, you may never grow tired of it.”

The findings are reported in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

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