Ho Hum. Another Masterpiece

How is it that we can so quickly come to take for granted the things that we once anticipated so keenly? Boy, I can’t wait to: try that food, see those gardens, visit that exhibit. Then, halfway in it’s:  ‘Ya ya. Been there, done that. What’s next?’



It’s remarkable how quickly we can become used to the most extraordinary things. You’ll see it in the faces of some who have traveled great distances to visit that mountain peak, those iconic buildings, or that splashy museum stuffed with world-renowned paintings. ‘Yup. That da Vinci sure can paint. What time do we get back to the hotel, again?’

The initial zowee can quickly wither to shrugs. It’s not that our expectations were hopelessly dashed. It’s just not, well, novel anymore.

Babies will show a precursor to this type of response in the lab. When first presented with an exciting new toy or an unusual photo – is that a dog with a cat’s body? – eye-tracking machines and wired pacifiers will confirm that the babies are giving this new stimulus their full attention. Show them a few more dats, though, and they’ll start to lose interest. ‘Bark/Meow, I get it. Next?’

This type of habituation makes cognitive sense.  We will exhaust ourselves mentally and physically if we continue to devote our peak attention and enthusiasm to the same old thing. We need to save enough energy to attend to and learn from new changes in the environment. ‘Oh oh. That cheelion looks dangerous’.

We’ve been around a few years now, though. Why are so many of us still surprised and conflicted at how quickly the thrill starts to chill?

Part of the answer may lie with Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert’s idea of Affective Forecasting.  He and others have shown – across a number of studies – that, despite our past experiences, many of us continue to overestimate the duration and intensity of our future emotional reactions.

Are there times where we’d like the bucket list excitement to last a little longer? If so: what can we do to stay attuned to marvels and their novelty?


Header Painting: Ramon Casas. Joven decadente. 1899


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Elizabeth Newton

Elizabeth Newton