Do you love doing the same thing over and over? Here’s why it doesn’t make you boring – there’s a value to experiencing something more than once.
One of the less-noticed mysteries of human psychology is how many everyday activities we don’t seem to find boring.
If you have a favourite country walk, or you’re prone to listening to certain songs 20 times on repeat, you’d appear to be violating the principle of “hedonic adaptation”, which holds that, as pleasures grow familiar they stop delivering joy.
After all, evolution designed us to find novelty compelling – on the prehistoric savannah, new things posed more threats, and opportunities, than old – and the modern economy relentlessly exploits this fact. People who prefer repeat experiences are liable to incur disdain.
Maybe it’s forgivable, given the state of the news, that I’ve been re-rereading Sherlock Holmes recently, instead of current affairs, or cutting-edge literary fiction. But you probably wouldn’t say it was admirable. Ultimately, it feels like retreating from reality.Advertisement
So I was pleased to encounter new research by Ed O’Brien of the University of Chicago, which might prompt a rethink on the matter. O’Brien exposed people to new experiences (movies, museum visits, videogames) then asked some of them to predict how much they’d enjoy the same thing again, while others actually did do it again.
To cut a long study short: people enjoy repeat experiences more than they predict they will. And not because they use the sameness to lull themselves into a comfortable trance, but because they discover new things they’d missed first time around.
As O’Brien put it: “Doing something once may engender an inflated sense that one has now seen ‘it’, leaving people naive to the missed nuances remaining to enjoy.” It’s less a question of loving the familiar, then, than of discovering it wasn’t so familiar after all.
When you relate to everyday life in this spirit, you begin to grasp what the writer Sam Harris means when he says that “boredom is always just a lack of attention”. There’s always more to find in any experience, and boredom is simply what happens when, out of impatience or distraction, you stop looking for it.
And if breathing can be freshly interesting every time you do it, there’s no reason why a walk to the shop on the corner – let alone a hike in the hills – shouldn’t feel like the trip of a lifetime.