The Power of Dishabituation

The Power of Dishabituation
Habits are something millions of us attempt to master, exemplified by the worldwide success of tomes like Atomic Habits. Habits make effort easier and compound progress in all kinds of areas of life.
Dishabituation, though, is the act of breaking out of the routine. The term, popularised this year by Sharot & Sunstein, highlights the wellbeing-boosting power of halting the automatic.
The thought goes like this, as we familiarise ourselves with routine, we innure ourselves to the splendour of our actions. This cuts both ways experientially. We become used to the good stuff, so it feels less good. We also become used to the bad stuff, so it feels less bad.
Groundhog Day
Approximately 45% of our daily routine is built up of habits, so much so that we may be sleepwalking through our days without much realisation as to the impact of our mountains of mindlessness. Unless some kind of unwarranted event disturbs our line of thought, we’re unlikely to make a change unintentionally.
This tendency to prefer what we’ve previously experienced over and over is known as “crispation.” A state of mind that avoids new opportunities for the sake of ease.
For anyone, and by that we mean everyone, who’s at one point or another found themselves on autopilot, the notion of dishabituation serves to shock us out of our scheduled programming to realise that we’re actually participating in a series of specials.
Play It Again
Most people when asked if they’d prefer to listen to their favourite song uninterrupted, or for the experience to be punctured every 20 seconds with a break, choose the former. If we like it, surely listening to the song in its entirety will lead to the most favourable outcome?
The research suggests otherwise. As we rupture a pleasant experience with a break, we actually enhance our appreciation of it. As we return to the thing we enjoy, we’re more inclined to appreciate just how good it is.
Make It Stop
The reverse rings true for unpleasant experiences. When asked whether people would prefer to take a break from smelling something rancid, or to just have the whole experience go on uninterrupted, the vast majority (90 out of 119) essentially chose to elongate the disgust expecting it to be less upsetting.
But their choice was counterproductive and they actually “suffered more overall.” Essentially, they interrupted their habituation. In doing so, they caused themselves more bother than if they were to continue without a break.
In their words, "once you come back, the experience [will be] grimmer overall."
The data here suggests that our natural inclination is mistaken. We shouldn’t dive into good things uninterrupted, gorging ourselves on greatness. We should purposely include breaks to heighten our appreciation of just how good they are.  
Then, when it comes to things we don’t want to do, we should get them over with as soon as we can for our own sake. 
Which Are You?
Sharot & Sunstein talk of a general categorisation of people: “explorers and exploiters.” The former chase new experiences, and the latter double down on ones they already know are pleasant. Balance, as always, is the optimum outcome, but this notion of dishabituation runs counter to the power of habituation, of 1% better every day, the Clearian approach that’s become so popular you’ll see his tome in Tesco during the weekly shop.
Progress may well be attained through being an exploiter, but how does that impact your wellbeing? In previous emails, we’ve highlighted how children may provide purpose at the expense of overall happiness. Habituation may provide progress but to continue it endlessly without pause for purpose could be impinging on our pleasure.
Motorcycle Madness
Sharot suggests this is exactly why middle age, objectively the least enjoyable period of life as per data, is so rife with individuals ready to flip the table. Because as we hit our mid-to-late forties, we’re likely with the same people, doing the same thing, in the same place. That’s why we see Uncle Dave desperate to hop on a Harley: to dishabituate.
The habituation piece goes back to a tried and tested line regurgitated by self-helpers: elephant syndrome. This refers to the learned helplessness that occurs when chaining a baby elephant, teaching it that it’s unable to remove the chains. Then, in adulthood, though strong enough to free itself, the elephant continues to believe what it was taught through the routine.
Thick Nerves

The physical process our brains undertake when repeating habits is known as myelination. It refers to the thickening of pathways in our brains, which allow us to use less energy to perform tasks we often repeat. Essentially, it's an evolutionary tool to save attentional energy for new tasks. It's a way to survive, but not necessarily to thrive.

Our natural inclination to lean towards survival isn’t always the preferable route. Wellbeing and enjoyment play a vital piece in modern life and with more knowledge at our disposal than ever before, we must reflect on our behaviours to understand whether what we’re doing is serving us or not.
A balanced self-identification of being an exploiter, and an explorer, at the right times, will better serve us for the long road ahead.

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