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Change and Habituation

On taking things for granted

Habituation (or adaptation) is referred to the process of adjustment to new or changed circumstances (e.g., income, health, values, goals, and smell). The effect is similar to tolerance to drug. Additional material goods and services initially provide extra pleasure, but it is usually temporary. The extra pleasure wears off. Satisfaction depends on change and disappears with continued consumption. For example, when a person first moves from a small apartment to a large one, she will be happy, but with the passage of time, her satisfaction tapers off. This may explain boredom in marriage, why rich people who seem to have everything are not necessarily happy.

As humans, we get used to things. After working hard to get what we want, we routinely lose interest in the object of our desire (e.g., material goods, status). Rather than feeling satisfied, we feel a bit bored and begin forming a new desire. In other words, we take our life and what we have for granted rather than appreciating them.

The trick is to keep habituation in check so that you can continue to savor the pleasure of the activities you really enjoy. To gain happiness is to learn how to desire things we already have. Buddha once said the secret happiness is to learn to want what you have and not want what you don’t have. The stoic philosophers advocated negative visualization. They recommended that we spend time imagining that we have lost the things we value (e.g., we lost our job). Doing so will make us value what we already have. When you say good-by to your child, we silently should remind ourselves that this might be our final parting. In other words, we should live each day as if it were our last and extract every bit of joy we can from it. The goal is to change our attitude as we carry out our daily affairs.

Furthermore, there are specific categories in which our capacity to habituate is more limited, such as family and friends, sleep, travel, and other restorative activities. The things that we get used to most easily are our material possession, such as car, or houses. Evidence shows that reallocating our time and money in these ways would result in healthier, longer, and more satisfying lives.

Research in behavioral economics demonstrates that people often fail to appreciate the degree to which they will adjust. For example, they overestimate the satisfaction they will derive from having a higher income in the future. Something similar can be said about most of negative events such as the loss of a family member or becoming disabled.

A key factor for this failure is the idea of focusing illusion. The focusing illusion occurs when people focus on a distinct aspect of a possible event or choice. We often exaggerate the effect a life change will have upon our happiness because we cannot foresee that we won’t always be thinking about it. As the new change loses its novelty it ceases to be the single focus of attention, and other aspects of life again occupy our attention.

In a classic experiment (Solley &Haigh, 1957), children had to draw Santa Clause in September, November, and December, including just before Christmas and right after it. Santa Clause was initially quite small, but then he grew, and, in particular, his bag of gift became larger and larger. But on the day after Christmas, the Santa Clauses were very small again. Objectively, Santa Clause takes a larger and larger place in the children’s lives as Christmas approaches.

Similarly, those who suffer from the belief that they have committed a social blunder are better off to imagine how insignificant the event will seem a year later. Having made a fool of yourself in public, you may feel anguish that certainly matters to you at moment. But in time it will diminish and probably disappear. Even if you do not forget the experience, others will: it will be drowned by all the subsequent happenings that eventually push it into oblivion. The take-home lesson is to look beyond the initial change and novelty to the time when the choice will be routine part of everyday living (“this too will pass”).

More from Shahram Heshmat Ph.D.
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