Understanding how “habituation” can work for us and against us

Now and again I read something and I feel compelled to share with our coaching community because of the impact it had on me and because I feel it would relate so well to our work with others.  This time it’s a work by Tali Sharot and Cass Sunstein about the effect and process of “dishabituation”; how to appreciate what we see, hear or experience every day, instead of becoming immune to its effect. The book is called “Look Again – the power of noticing what was always there” and the title caught my attention.   I feel we live in a world where familiarity with, (or habituation to) every day routines is the only way we can deal with the overwhelming number of responsibilities we face.   Now habituation simply means getting used to something. It can have very positive effects and some very negative effects. I’ll share a few of the points that really struck home in this insightful work.

  1. I’ve long realised that it is easy for days (and sometimes weeks) to pass and wonder where they’ve gone. I am also aware that this is because we tend to follow the same routine and nothing seems to stand out.  And none of us want life to pass us by that quickly!  Yet simply adding a variety of activities and changing things up can cause time to slow down.
  2. We’re always looking for more joy in our lives yet our brains stop responding to things that don’t change. Take for example living somewhere with a beautiful view.  We realise that the appreciation of this does diminish simply because we see it every day. This applies to so many things.  By doing something in a different way and welcoming in surprise and the unexpected we can regain that sparkle.
  3. Some of the scarier facts around  habituation is our ability to become desensitised to powerful messages that surround us. We habituate to bad things as well as good. For example,  climate change.  The more we hear about it the less shocked we are or prompted to take action. 
  4. On the flip side, we are also more likely to believe as truth, messages that we hear all the time. This is how politicians work –  and marketers!  Repetition creates a feeling of familiarity
  5. Our brains habituate to dishonesty, even our own!  Small untruths may lead to bigger lies as we become accustomed to the feeling of ethical discomfort!

So how can we enhance joy in our lives?  Here are a few ideas

  1. Take small breaks –  it has been shown that even in the midst of an enjoyable activity taking small breaks can increase our enjoyment. These breaks reduce our tendency to adapt to the good feeling so the bursts of pleasure or happiness last longer.
  2. Make a change in activity – stand up, go for a run – this can boost creativity as it prepares the mind for change.
  3. Learning and making progress makes us happy we like to think of ourselves as moving forward changing learning and evolving.  And this is where the profound message really lies.
  4. Change is necessary for us to perceive a life with fresh eyes.  One cannot habituate to change.

Habituation can also drive us on to create change. The feeling of boredom and staleness that can come with experiencing the same thing over and over again can give some of us the motivation to create change; to move forward and learn.  The messages in this book backup what we know about things like midlife crisis – when people ask the question, “Is this all there is?”  Habituation again working against them.

As always, people differ in their tendency, speed or ability to habituate. People who habituate quickly will be drawn to exploring new things –  perhaps new sensations. People who take longer to habituate may be satisfied for longer time and not seek out new experiences or new routines.  Which one are you? Which one are your clients? Is this working for us or against us?

There are many more very interesting facts in this book.

  • Did you know that when we go on vacation our happiness peaks 43 hours in then tends to stabilise or diminish?  (Perhaps taking more regular, shorter breaks is beneficial?)
  • The reason risk takers continue to take greater and greater risks is the fact that they have habituated to the fear and excitement of  the experience prior to the challenge.
  • Another area that habituation plays a big part is in social media use.  Although we may be aware of the negative effect of our addictive behaviour, we’ve got so used to it we don’t take action to change it.

When we work with clients it could be interesting to view them through the lens of their ability to habituate. If we know ourselves, it makes it easier to understand the way someone else may feel, or what they might need.  Do they habituate easily or slowly?  Is this playing apart in their overall satisfaction with life?   Is change happening too slowly, or too fast for them?

Perhaps some of the information that I have condensed above could be useful in our coaching and help us support people in bringing more joy and/or challenges to their lives.  Yet surely, being able to “marvel and look anew”, avoid complacency and understand how dishabituation can be a very good thing.


Look Again – The power of noticing what was always there.Tali Sharot and Cass Sunstain, 2024