About 20 years ago, I traveled around India for several weeks. It was a time in my life when I was very unhappy, when I spent a lot of time alone, lacking confidence and worrying about my future. But travelling around India had a revelatory effect on me. I loved the crazy intensity of the country, even though it was sometimes overpowering, as if my senses were being bombarded with too much information. However, I was also shocked by the terrible poverty I encountered. In the city of New Delhi, there were thousands of people sleeping rough on the streets, and many people–including young children–who were so thin that they looked as if they hadn’t eaten for days. There were people with illnesses and conditions like leprosy and rickets, which have largely disappeared from the affluent Western world. Life in the big cities of India seemed brutal and chaotic, a Darwinian struggle for survival.
As a result, when I returned to Germany–where I was living at the time–I felt as though I had a completely new perspective on my life. I felt incredibly lucky to live in a part of the world where life was easy and secure, where even the poorest people were wealthy in relative terms. After seeing so many people with serious health problems, I felt incredibly lucky to have a healthy body, which had easy access to proper nourishment. I remember saying to myself when I arrived home, “‘I’m never going to complain about anything ever again!”
It didn’t last, of course. That appreciative frame of mind lingered for a few weeks, but after that I began to take my situation for granted again and returned to the same state of unhappiness and dissatisfaction as before.
The Taking for Granted Syndrome
This is an example of what I call the “taking for granted syndrome": our tendency to switch off to the value of the good things in our lives. We often fail to appreciate the full value of our health, of the people we love, of our peace, freedom and prosperity, and the very fact that we are alive at all. We usually do learn the value of these things when they’re taken away from us–for example, when we become seriously ill, when our partners leave us (perhaps because we were taking them for granted), or if we experience poverty or imprisonment. At that point, we tell ourselves, “If only I were healthy again–or if only my wife or husband came back to me–then I’ll definitely be happy!” If we're fortunate enough, those good things might be returned to us again. And then we usually go through a honeymoon period of real appreciation. But this is usually only temporary. After a while, the taking for granted syndrome operates again, switching us off to the value of our blessings.
The taking for granted syndrome is clearly related to the phenomenon of adaptation, the process by which we quickly “get used to” new environments and situations. When we’re first exposed to new experiences and environments, they affect us powerfully. For example, the first few days in an unfamiliar foreign country, the first few days in a new job, or the first exposure to a new smell or taste. But these experiences and sensations quickly lose their sensory power as we become habituated to them. There almost seems to be a psychological mechanism of “desensitization,” which quickly filters out the intensity of experiences, turning newness to familiarity.
Adaptation can be useful when we’re faced with negative situations. If you have to go to prison or if you fall into poverty or become ill, habituating quickly to the situation may help to reduce your depression or trauma. Or if you start a new life in a different country with a new career, it’s obviously helpful to become habituated to the new situation as quickly as possible, to ease a potentially difficult transition. In this sense, the taking for granted syndrome can be seen as the flip side of this ability: when the habituation process acts on things which ideally we shouldn’t get used to.
The taking for granted syndrome is also at the root of the concept of the "hedonic treadmill" which has been developed in positive psychology. This concept suggests that human beings have a "baseline" of happiness we keep returning to. When positive events happen in our lives –for example, when we enter into a new relationship, move to a bigger and better house, get promoted, or even win the lottery–they bring a temporary "lift" in our happiness, but within a short while we adapt to the situation and return to the same level of well-being as before. This is a treadmill because it suggests that no matter what happens to us or what we do and no matter how intense our short term happiness may be, we can never actually make ourselves any happier in the long term. We can never raise ourselves above the baseline. Positive psychologists have suggested that the temporary lift of positive events may last for around three months. After that, if we want to sustain higher level happiness, we have to generate new positive events or experiences.
Transcending the Taking For Granted Syndrome
The concept of the hedonic treadmill is seemingly quite pessimistic. It suggests that happiness is always transitory; brief periods of happiness are always followed by periods of neutrality, or by unhappiness. If we always have to return to the same neutral point, what’s the point in striving to make ourselves happier? However, I think this view is unnecessarily bleak. It is possible to transcend the hedonic treadmill. More specifically, it is possible to transcend the taking for granted syndrome.
One way in which it’s possible to do this is by consciously practicing appreciation or gratitude. During workshops and online courses based on my book Back to Sanity, I guide participants through an "appreciation exercise" in which I ask them to write a number of sentences beginning with phrases like "I’m glad I’m…," ‘I’m grateful for…," "I am fortunate because…" Once they have seven or eight of these sentences, I ask them to write them all down in their best handwriting on a sheet of colored card. This becomes their "appreciation list," which they pin to the wall at home in a place where they can read it every day, such as the kitchen, by the front door, or even in the restroom. I ask them to spend at least five minutes each day reading through the list and digesting the meaning of the sentences.
At the end of the course (which is usually five or six weekly sessions), the majority of students report that of all the exercises we do, the appreciation list has had the most significant effect on their outlook and mood. They generally report that it has made them aware of “blessings” which they normally take for granted, that it has generated a constant sense of gratitude which has been the basis of an overall sense of enhanced well-being.
More formal studies by positive psychologists have had similar results. In 2003, psychologists Emmons and McCullough asked participants to practice exercises of "counting their blessings" either on a weekly basis for ten weeks or on a daily basis for two or three weeks. Compared to a control group, the participants reported much more positive emotion and better physical health. As a result of such research, many positive psychologists believe that gratitude is the most essential and powerful constituent of well-being, since it involves a whole shift of attitude and perspective.
But can this sense of gratitude be sustained? If it’s dependent on the exercises and fades away as soon as they stop, then it’s not really so different from the temporary happiness which positive life events give us. However, it’s important to remember that our “cognitive patterns” are largely habitual. The basic principle of CBT is that the power of negative or self-critical thoughts can be reduced and that they can be overridden and replaced by more rational and more positive thoughts. Eventually, rational and positive thinking styles can become habitual, just as negative patterns once were.
In a similar way, an appreciative thinking style can become habitual. An “attitude of gratitude” can become ingrained within our minds so that we have a constant sense of appreciation. A 2009 study at University College London tracked 96 people as they tried to learn new habits, like eating a piece of fruit with lunch, drinking a glass of water, or going for a 15-minute run every day. The study found that, on average, it took 66 days for the behavior to become automatic to them. Something similar may be true for cognitive habits. Several weeks of practicing conscious appreciation could establish appreciation as an ongoing and stable cognitive habit.
Another technique which can help to transcend the taking for granted syndrome is meditation. One of the effects of meditation–and its popular contemporary variant, mindfulness–is to “de-automatize” our perceptual processes. On a perceptual level, meditation makes the world around us seem more vivid and real. After a good meditation practice, we find ourselves paying more attention to our surroundings and noticing things which weren’t apparent before. And this may well apply to cognitive processes, too. For example, experiments with the "Stroop test"– when a list of the names of colors are printed in a different color to their names so that, for example, the word “yellow” might appear in red, and participants are asked to read them–found that meditators experienced less interference than normal, and showed greater “cognitive flexibility,” indicating that their processing was less automatic. Recent experiments in mindfulness meditation have shown that it brings increased attentiveness, at the same time increasing our control over our attention, so that attention in general becomes less automatic (1).
In other words, meditation has the effect of "waking us up," both to the reality of the phenomenal world and of our life situations. It reverses the processes of habituation and de-sensitization and enables us to see the world and our own lives more clearly and freshly so that we become more able to appreciate our blessings.
I would recommend then a combination of appreciation exercises and regular meditation or mindfulness exercises as a strategy for transcending the taking for granted syndrome. In doing so, we might cease to sell ourselves short, might free ourselves from unnecessary misery, and learn to love each other and our lives a little more. As Abraham Maslow put it, “Getting used to our blessings is one of the most important non-evil generators of human evil, tragedy, and suffering.”
(1) See Malinowksi, P. "Neural mechanisms of attentional control in mindfulness meditation." http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3563089/