As humans we’re innately compelled to pursue new experiences, challenge ourselves in new ways, pontificate possible meanings, and explore new ideas, people, and places. (This explains why 10 months of solitary confinement in our worldwide pandemic prison has more or less sucked the life out of us. The only exploring we’ve been doing is between Netflix, Zillow, and the well-worn path to the fridge.)
Researchers tell us the more willing we are to adopt a curious, novelty-seeking mindset, the likelier we are to flourish and thrive. Variety is more than just the spice of life — it slows down the hedonic treadmill.
The hedonic treadmill?
No, it’s not an orgy on the piece of equipment we never use. It refers to how we adapt to everything in life — the high of a promotion and the whirlwind of a new romance, right down to the loss of a pet and an annoyingly micromanaging boss. We adapt to what life throws at us predictably and without fail. This is a helpful adaptation when things are shit (good to know that if we’re maimed in a lawnmower accident, we’ll end up just about as happy as we are today), and it’s a dispiriting adaptation when we want to hold onto the highs (like if we win the lottery; we’ll be giddy for a few months, buy gaudy houses, and then return to our pre-stinking rich baselines of happiness). The treadmill of adaptation doesn’t slow down, so we need to outsmart it. We need to shake things up.
If we find ourselves plagued by the thought that other people’s Saturdays are surely more exciting than our own, that our lives are passing us by, that January was a blur, and that it’s a new year and WE DON’T WANT TO ZOMBIE OUR WAY THROUGH THIS ONE, TOO — it might signal a desire to rumple up our routines. “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives” (thank you for the great line, Annie Dillard). Our lives are essentially a collection of hours and minutes and what we do or don’t do with them. We have a myriad of ways to do things that make us feel alive in our one and only lives, using novelty to our advantage.
Proust believed we ruin our lives by the “shroud of familiarity” that habits bestow upon us. Mundane routines dull our senses and in tandem with the hedonic treadmill set to a trusty and constant 6.0 mph, they prevent us from appreciating what our lives have to offer — like the beauty of a snowflake on a mitten to the snorting laugh of a dear old friend. Avoiding habits (other than the essentials like calling your Mom on Tuesdays and bathing) is a key to vitality and not boring yourself to death. Wait — said better, treating habits like landmines to avoid for dear life — that’s how we not only stay alive but feel alive.
When we’ve slipped into the catatonic state of autopilot, it appears as though a consistent, slow drip of novelty can help bring us back to life. Adding in a new breakfast option into the rotation (French Toast over here please)… reading a biography instead of your usual true crime novel next… adding a high intensity burst in your next workout… ordering a new cuisine for your next takeout… putting a puzzle together on a Thursday night… listening to opera just because… texting a friend who has fallen off your radar… watching a cheezy comedy if you normally watch dramas… taking an hour to make something (a batch of cinnamon buns/ a card for someone special/ a doodle/ a baby)… participating in an online class on anything that interests you… going to bed an hour early (or late, oh dear)… eating on the floor for an indoor family picnic… initiating a snowball fight… I could keep going but we all have things to do.
Take the Anti-Autopilot Assessment
I suggest you take a few minutes to complete the Anti-Autopilot Assessment, which will help you to zero in on the ways you might be dulling your senses, where that “shroud of familiarity” might be robbing you of vitality. There are quite a few questions (okay, there are 52 of them but you are a champion and I believe in you), and you’ll likely have to call upon on your pre-pandemic memory to answer the questions like the you before you had to hunker down in a bunker… so cozy up to it, do the reflection assignment at the end of it, and see where you want to add more novelty to your 2021.
Play elevator music here while you complete the assessment.
What did you learn about yourself? What parts of life seem really ripe for opportunity to bust up? Where are you the most defensive about your routines? I encourage that if you’re feeling particularly rigid about an area, that might be just the spot you want to unpack the first. Again—this isn’t about abandoning all the habits that keep your life or family engine running. It’s about the subtle tweaks that have the potential to add even just the smallest amount of life back into you. Pick one thing to do between now and next week and revel in your aliveness. (I’ll be making French Toast.)