Variety is more than the spice of life. Recalling variety is the key to bringing back that loving feeling for old experiences that now bore us, new research suggests.
The general problem is called satiation, and it has been found for a variety of pleasures including foods, sex, music, TV programs, art and cars. No matter how happy these experiences or products once made us, satisfaction tends to fade over time and that gets in the way of our longtime happiness, researchers say.
Specifically, we experience "variety amnesia" — we forget that we've actually been exposed recently to a lot of other wonderful songs, phones, foods, people, and we tend to focus on the one particular option that no longer does it for us. This relates to the process of habituation — we got so used to something that we no longer enjoy it.
However, merely recalling the variety of life — within the category that we're struggling with (say, all lunches if we are bored with the usual suspect) — "dishabituates" our minds and we're more likely to re-enjoy the previously enjoyable, says researcher Jeff Galak, a marketing professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
Galak and colleagues have put some science to this, primarily among college students:
"We demonstrate that simply thinking about the variety of similar experiences one has had since last being exposed to the now-disliked stimulus accelerates recovery from satiation," Galak and his colleagues write in the Journal of Consumer Research in an article published online last month and slated for the print edition in December.
For example, if someone is sick of listening to her favorite song, she could think about all the other songs she has listened to since last listening to her favorite.
"Such simulations act as 'virtual' variety, providing much of the same reduction in satiation as actual variety," the authors write. (A reduction in satiation is a good thing; it means one is on the road to satisfaction.)
Galak, Joseph Redden of the University of Minnesota and Justin Kruger of New York University conducted three separate studies to discover this mental trick.
First, in a pilot study of 91 subjects (mostly female), people were more willing to socialize with a close friend after thinking about all the other friends they had socialized with.
In the next study of 50 students (34 women, 16 men) at NYU, participants who listened to a song 20 times enjoyed it more three weeks later if they thought about other songs they had listened to in the previous weeks.
The third study replicated the findings with jellybeans and 55 NYU students (30 female, 25 male). In all cases, the people who were prompted to think about variety of similar items (and not unrelated topics, like celebrities) recovered more quickly.
"If consumers wish to keep enjoying their favorite experiences, then they should simply think of all the other related experiences they have recently had," the authors write.
"For example, the next time you find yourself in the all-too-common situation of not wanting to eat the same thing for lunch, try to recall all of the other things you have eaten since yesterday's lunch," Galak and his colleagues write. "Our findings suggest this will make your current lunch taste just a little bit better."
The upshot of the story is about more than mindless meals. People who can recover better from boredom with their current stuff, friends, loved ones and experiences "should lead a happier life," the researcher say.
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