Why We Get Bored of the Best Things in Life—and How to Fight It

“Everyone has something good in their life, whether it’s an interesting job or a loving relationship or a nice view outside their window, but those things give you less joy over time because you don’t notice them anymore due to habituation,” says Dr. Sharot. To illustrate this point, she notes that data shows that people get a happiness boost from marriage, but that it only lasts for two years before their happiness returns to pre-marriage levels.

Even if you continue to understand, intellectually, that certain aspects of your life, such as your partner, job, house, etc., are positive, Dr. Sharot and Sunstein say there’s a difference between knowing and feeling, and that your feelings tend to habituate more quickly than your thoughts. This is because “knowing” is a newer ability for humans, from an evolutionary standpoint, than “feeling,” so we’ve become more adept at habituating to the former than the latter. So despite what your brain is telling you about the reality of your current circumstances, e.g. that your wife is a catch, you may have trouble feeling as though this is true.

Such habituation to the positive elements of our lives can have all sorts of negative impacts. In addition to causing our happiness levels to drop, it can provoke us to do things we might later regret—like having an affair, quitting a perfectly good job, or buying an impractical sports car we can’t afford. And according to Sunstein and Dr. Sharot, it’s a significant driver of the much-dreaded midlife crisis.

The duo explains that happiness has a U-shaped curve over the span of a lifetime—it starts high in kids and teenagers, and then slowly declines over time, reaching rock bottom in midlife before climbing upwards again in the latter third of life (up until the final years). “We don’t know what is causing this u-shape, but one possibility is that midlife is often the time at which there is the most amount of same-ness,” says Dr. Sharot.

As a child, and into your twenties, she says, you tend to be learning a lot and having a variety of novel experiences, but by midlife, many of your commitments have been made and your life has stabilized, leaving less room for novelty. “Maybe you’ve lived in the same house for a while, or been in the same relationship for a while, or you don’t travel perhaps as much because you have children,” says Dr. Sharot. “You might be at the top of your profession, but while before it was about striving and developing, now it’s more about maintaining.” These decreases in novelty and learning lead to increased habituation, she says.

How to Appreciate the Good Things in Life Anew

Fortunately, there are ways to disrupt this type of habituation in order to see your world anew and, ideally, appreciate the good things you have rather than sabotaging them. This is known as dishabituation.

“I’ll give you a metaphor,” says Dr. Sharot. “On the inside cover of our book, there is an image of clouds of different colors—blue, green, yellow, with a little fixation dot in the middle. The idea is that if you fixate on the dot and don’t move your eyes, after about 30 seconds those colors more or less turn into gray. And if you’re really good at not moving your eyes at all, they turn to white. This happens because the neurons in your brain are getting the exact same input from those colors, and so you stop noticing them. But the moment you move your eyes, you’ll see the colors again immediately, because now different neurons are getting different inputs. And so that’s a good metaphor for life as well—there are a lot of colors around us, but because they’ve been there so long, they might become gray.”

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