Our brains do an odd thing. If we see, hear or do the same thing over and over again, we stop paying attention to it. We desensitise to it. This is called habituation.
Have you ever gone into a room and thought, “something is different, but I am not sure what?” and then someone tells you that a piece of furniture has been moved or a picture replaced? You got so used to your surroundings being the same that you just didn’t pay any attention to it anymore, until something changed. Something new happened. Have you been or done something new that, the first time, was really exciting or thrilling or just felt good? But after a very few repeats, starts to just feel “normal’? That is habituation.
It is thought to be a survival trait – the similar is not dangerous, but difference is. So we tend to sort by difference, or pay attention to what has changed first. If we didn’t we would be on a state of high alert all the time, which would be exhausting. But this habitation also works against us, as we get bored and “ho hum” about experiences or things very quickly. The good feelings attached to them dissipate and we have to go in search of new experiences or things to get a new good feeling.
As humans we live with a strange contradiction where we crave new things but also want things to stay the same! We enjoy the thrill of something new – and we associate good feelings to that – but we also naturally habituate or desensitise to repeated experiences.
One of the places where this contradiction is most noticeable is in our consumerist society. Marketing, in particular, taps into this natural propensity to desensitise to the everyday. When we buy something new it feels good, we get a “hit”, but as time passes we habituate that new item and it just becomes “stuff” that we have. The initial thrill of buying and owning it fades. Until eventually it is relegated to the back of the wardrobe, or the loft, or flung in the bin. We then need a new “hit”. We even have a name for it – “retail therapy” – where you get that “hit”, that thrill of the unique by buying something new. With modern media, this desensitisation cycle is becoming ever shorter and we have to buy more and more, more often to get that “hit” that we so crave for.
What can we do about it?
Well, this is where it starts to get interesting…
There was a study carried out on Zen Buddhist monks that discovered that Zen style mindful meditation reduces the habituation process (you can read it here). Things stay “unique” for longer; that good feeling we get from a new experience or from some new stuff stays around for longer, that craving for something new takes longer to surface. Simply put, you appreciate what you have and don’t feel the need or desire for anything else (beyond practical needs).
If you meditate you can extend the time before you habituate to something new. So, by meditating you extend the time before the “hit” of buying a new item diminishes to nothing and the craving for something new kicks in.
Meditation stops you from needed to buy new stuff.
Why is this important?
It really is not healthy to rely on external forces to validate or control our moods. Once we start putting some outside influence as an essential criteria to our happiness, we start to limit our ability to attain it.
By the way, I am not saying you cannot buy or own nice stuff. Of course you can! It is entirely up to you what you do. In fact by reducing the habituation process via a daily mediation habit, you will appreciate that stuff for longer and you won’t feel the need replace it, making it an even better purchase. I often suggest, when purchasing something, to invest in a quality item and practice mindfulness meditation. As that will save you money in the long run!
All of which can’t help but reinforce my growing belief that everything starts with meditation…
Learn more about how to develop a daily mindfulness meditation practice here.