Surprise!

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Getting Spoiled (and Unspoiled)

What toilets can teach us about enjoying life

I've used a lot of different toilets in my day.

As a kid in Ukraine, I was well-acquainted with toilet 1.0: four walls surrounding a hole in the ground (also known as the outhouse).

I also had my share of stall-less public toilets (like the kinds in Sochi that have been shocking much of the developed world).

Thanks to my meager beginnings in toilet quality, I was delighted by the modern U.S. toilets in my life. Until I visited Japan. Heated seats, self-closing lids, and that puzzling (but promising) array of buttons on the side. 

Japanese toilets opened my eyes to a world of possibilities, but when I returned to the U.S., I realized that this new perspective came with a cost: I had gotten spoiled. Never again will a simple toilet be enough to make me happy.

This realization gave me new insight into becoming "spoiled." When we say spoiled, what we really mean is that our expectations have been set unreasonably high.

How do we go about getting spoiled? Through positive surprise. A kid who doesn't expect to get a new toy then does is surprised and delighted. This leads his expectations to shift: he now expects new toys. The more often his expectations are confirmed, the stronger they get. And (like when downgrading from comfy, heated toilet seats to cold, hard reality) if his new expectations are violated, he will experience negative surprise and disappointment. In other words, it will become clear that he has gotten "spoiled."

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We are all spoiled in many ways, but we don't notice it until our expectations are violated. If we're lucky, they rarely are, but even if we get exactly what we expect, there is another downside of being spoiled: expected events produce no surprise and therefore very little enjoyment.

An expected heated toilet is no better than an expected outhouse. This is a phenomenon psychologists have nicknamed the hedonic treadmill.

Is it possible to avoid getting spoiled? Not really. Our brains automatically reset their expectations based on our experiences. But there are at least two things we can do to get unspoiled and enjoy life even more:

1. Practice gratitude. It sounds warm and fuzzy, and it is, but it is warm and fuzzy science. Gratitude allows us to become aware of what we usually take for granted, bathing our brains in pleasure chemicals that we stopped producing when our wonderful lives became invisible to us thanks to our rising expectations.

2. Keep soft schemas. A schema contains all the elements that make up our understanding of something. For example, your toilet schema may include privacy, a seat, and the ability to flush. If you encounter a toilet that doesn't have one of these features, you'll be surprised, disappointed, and maybe even outraged. To keep your schemas soft rather than rigid, it helps to seek out new experiences often: new  and different people, perspectives, locations, norms, and of course toilets.

Have you managed to unspoil yourself or someone else? I'd love to hear how.

Tania is the CEO of Surprise Industries and a psychology instructor and researcher at Hunter College.

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