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 regular pub or 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.
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.
This isn’t so surprising when you consider the mismatch between the information bombarding our brains at any given moment and the tiny amount our conscious minds can process (about 0.0003% of the total, according to one estimate) which means almost everything gets filtered out. Add to this our natural tendency toward distraction, plus the likelihood that we’re more distractible these days than ever, and it’s clear that no experience need ever be the same twice. We have no trouble accepting that the work of Shakespeare or Austen repays multiple encounters. But our limited capacities mean the same is true, to some extent, of any airport thriller or TV reality show.
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. (Or as GK Chesterton wrote: “There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.”) Harris attributes this insight to meditation, which makes sense: anyone who meditates for a while comes to know the intense fascination that can be aroused by something as apparently dull and repetitious as the breath. 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.
In his new book The Tao Of Ordinariness, psychologist Robert Wickes argues that in a world geared to novelty and specialness, it takes determination merely to be who we really are.