When I was a kid growing up in Iran, I remember that we only had a handful of channels on TV and after a certain hour, they all displayed that dreadful TV test card and played a high-pitched sound as if to say, “Why are you still awake watching this boring display of talking heads?” There was no Internet or other form of digital entertainment, of course, so those few hours of TV were cherished and celebrated simply because they were the cutting edge of entertainment at the time; it didn’t matter what was on TV, all that mattered was that the TV was on, as boring as it might be by today’s standards.
Now, when I mention watching TV back then, I’m sure some of my younger readers are surprised by the fact that there were only 5 or 6 channels available in total. That certainly sounds drab and dreary, but they might be even more surprised to find out that I meant those terms to be taken literally! What I mean by that is, at the risk of dating myself even more, for much of my childhood, every channel was displayed completely in black and white! Of course, given that color TV was an emerging technology at the time—I might as well be calling the wheel an emerging technology, given how far we have advanced since then—there were hardly any stations that broadcast channels in color anyway, so we were just fine with black and white and didn’t feel like we were missing out on anything. That is, of course, until they started importing color TVs into the country, and my uncle, who was always an early adopter of the latest and greatest commodity going around at the time, decided to purchase one of these rare TV sets.
I remember going to his house and being completely mesmerized by the most exhilarating entertainment experience of my entire life, which has yet to be surpassed to this day; I remember watching the Flintstones…IN COLOR! Words cannot really describe the awe-inspiring experience of me as a kid beholding the blissful vision that was cartoons radiating with every wavelength of light visible to the human eye. It was as if I was blind and now I could see, as if I had been in a cave my whole life and then came out and saw the sun, and…you get the picture. Of course, it sounds silly in retrospect, but at the time, as a kid seeing cartoons in color for the first time, you can bet it shifted my perspective on life just a little.
After that, I couldn’t wait to go back to my uncle’s house and experience the joy of seeing all those vivid colors on the TV screen again. Every time we were there, even though I tried to act cool and not make my mom and dad feel bad because we didn’t have a color TV, I was soaking in every glorious detail and taking in every little patch of color on that screen. During that time, I also remember going home to what had become a very disappointing black and white TV set that was no longer quite as satisfying.
Needless to say, I was beyond excited when my mom and dad decided to buy a color TV for us. I no longer had to wait to visit my uncle to experience all the colors of the rainbow dancing in front of my very eyes. I knew this was not a decision my parents had taken lightly and that only made me appreciate it even more. I imagined what it would be like coming home everyday to a color TV?! Could life get any better?! Are you kidding?! I was in heaven.
The only minor problem was that, for quite some time after we had the new TV set, we could only watch one of the 5-6 channels that we had in color, because only one was consistently broadcast in color at the time. Did I care though? Heck no! Instead of focusing on the few channels that were still in black and white, all I cared about was that that one channel that was in color. That is, of course, until I came to expect it and it became normal. Although months later the other channels were also broadcast in color, I distinctly remember occasionally watching one of the black and white channels at the time and, for a brief second, seeing a splash of color! And guess what? That brief splash of unexpected color where there was none before had now become more exciting and interesting than the channel that was all color, all the time. The color channel was still very nice, I couldn’t deny, but it had become something commonplace so we took it for granted. On the other hand, watching one of the other shows and seeing color for just a brief second was a major treat and cause for celebration.
Now, I’m sure you know where this story is headed, but let me wrap it up anyway. Of course, months later when all the channels were in color, I still enjoyed watching TV but didn’t necessarily pay much attention to the color anymore. It was just there, as it was supposed to be, so why make a big deal about it? What had been a near religious experience the first time, had now become so ho-hum that I barely even registered it.
Why does this happen ... even to the best of us?
All of us know this feeling, but it is something we rarely take the time to really stop and acknowledge. I doubt that you have ever given it a second thought that a color TV is so much nicer than a black and white TV, perhaps because that is all you have ever known. In fact, I must admit that when I sit back and watch a movie in my home theater in 4K high definition, listening to my crisp and robust surround-sound Bose speakers, the experience in the moment is nowhere even close to the excitement I felt as a kid anticipating that one second splash of color coming through on our old TV screen. Note that the particulars of the experience are objectively 100 times better; the image is much more vivid, the screen is at least 20 times bigger and the sound is out of this world. But, as for the texture of the experience itself, it is just kind of “bleh.” It is just not the same because, well, it’s “normal.” That’s how it’s supposed to be, right? The fact is, you simply don’t get to enjoy what you take for granted, and you take for granted whatever you accept as normal.
Of course, as I always say, there is nothing wrong with that. That we take for granted what we consider normal is itself also normal. As a result of something called hedonic adaptation or the hedonic treadmill, unless we go out of our way to consciously be present and address it, our basic satisfaction and appreciation of life stays pretty much the same over time, regardless of what happens. It can also help to think of hedonic adaptation as a “happiness thermostat,” where no matter what happens, whether you win the lottery or lose a limb, eventually your happiness or satisfaction level finds its way back to whatever the baseline is set at. This is good news in the case of bad news, you might say, but it is bad news in the case of good news! In any case, hedonic adaptation is a fascinating phenomenon and I encourage you to explore the subject more on your own, but for our purposes here, I want to focus on the quickest and simplest thing you can do to start moving the dial on that thermostat: practice being present to the uniqueness of each moment.
Your brain filters out stuff that you consider irrelevant or normal. This is done, it is said, by the reticular activating system (RAS) partly so that you aren’t overloaded with all the sensory information your body takes in at any given moment; in a crowded room, you need to be able to drown out the noise and focus on your own conversation, or you would be rendered basically cataplectic. This is also done partly because the brain prefers to be efficient even to the point of being a little sloppy sometimes; there is no point wasting energy on remembering the route to and from work when your muscle memory will suffice, so there’s no need for you to remember the details of the trip. In both a psychological and physiological sense—through neuroplasticity and Hebbian theory, also fascinating phenomena—your brain ignores whatever it considers normal or expected, so it can focus on things that will either support or threaten its continued existence. This is precisely why we take things for granted, and why even people who objectively have abundant resources may find themselves nevertheless just as, or even less, satisfied than they were when they had less. After all, if having a home theater, or a mansion, or a Lamborghini, or a loving spouse, or a huge salary is normal, your brain reasons, and if it doesn’t pose an explicit threat or potential gain to your well-being, then it might as well not even exist at all.
This process can continue to such a point that you may even start to feel that every day is literally the same; you wake up, get your coffee, go to work, come home, relax for a few hours, sleep, and then repeat. But that is, of course, an illusion caused by not paying attention. The truth is, no two days are really the same, and in fact, no two moments are even the same; to paraphrase the philosopher Heraclitus, you can’t step into the same river twice, because by the time you’ve done it, everything is already different, including you. This is true on a physical level because our atoms and cells and blood are always moving, but it is also true on a psychological level, because our mind is also always moving even if our bodies are still. And this means that every conscious experience we have is entirely unique, “every experience is different from every other experience you have ever had, or could have.”
So, what's the solution?
So, this being the case, what can we do about it? Well, if ignoring what we consider normal causes us to take it for granted and find it unsatisfying, how about we try paying attention to what we consider normal in our lives? Note that I’m not saying we should try being grateful for everything in our lives—we should, but that’s a bit tough if there are aspects of our lives we don’t like. All I’m saying is that the only thing you have to do to increase your satisfaction in the present is take a little time and pay attention to whatever is going on. The more mindful and present you are, that is, the more attention and energy you consciously devote to whatever is happening right now, the more you will notice that every moment is unique, and the less it will seem like you are stuck in a never-ending cycle of monotony and dissatisfaction, which is what they call “samsara” in Buddhism. It might sound too easy to actually work, but stick with me here.
Because of the neuroplasticity mentioned above, the more you consciously pay attention to something, the more “bandwidth” your brain devotes to it. And the more bandwidth your brain devotes to something, the more neural connections it creates specifically related to that thing. And the more connections there are dedicated to one thing, the more you notice about it and the more interesting and satisfying it becomes. (There are some things for which our brain does this automatically, sometimes involving extreme pleasure, but usually acute pain—unless you have a congenital insensitivity to pain, getting an injury rarely ever becomes ho-hum, whether we like it or not.) The logical progression of this process of being present to the uniqueness of each moment is that the texture or flavor of your experience of life is broadened and deepened to the point that it is as if you suddenly realize that what you had been seeing as shades of gray for your whole life had actually been in vibrant, radiant color the whole time.
So, what are you taking for granted? What is it that you no longer feel a deep sense of appreciation for, simply because you have had the benefit of it for a while and it has become merely normal? Have you been conditioned to go through your daily routine, taking all the good stuff for granted and focusing in only on the issues and the problems and things that you wish were different? Have you been not paying attention to what’s right in front of you, because you are either regretting something that happened in the past or worrying about something that might happen in the future? How about paying attention to what it is that you once had a deep appreciation for and you have allowed to become part of your routine? What if you were intentional about physically paying attention to people and things around you like you are seeing them for the first time or the last time?
An exercise to see with new eyes:
On that note, I’d like to leave you with a very specific and very simple exercise to practice this habit of being present. Let’s call it the “Last Chance to See” exercise:
Pick one part of your daily routine. Go where you normally go as you are performing that routine. Close your eyes and relax and imagine that, one minute after you open your eyes, you will lose your eyesight and be blind for the rest of your life. It doesn’t really matter if this sounds a bit silly or why this might happen, only that you entertain the idea as seriously as you can and convince yourself that you really only get to see your surroundings for one more minute before everything goes dark. Now, open your eyes again and look around for one minute with that in mind. And when you look, really see what’s there. Try to take in the scenery. Notice the colors that you can see. Pay attention to the details of the objects you have been passing by without a second thought. Look up. Look down. Look for what you have been ignoring and what you have taken for granted. For that one minute, only focus on your surroundings, again, as if you will never see them again. Because the truth is, you never will; you can’t step in the same river twice.
The truth is that this moment, right here and right now, is the first, last, and only time you will ever experience it; once it is gone for you, it will never return, except as a phantasm or dream. Each moment, like each person, is utterly unique; each is born from nothing, lives for the blink of an eye, and passes away as if it never existed at all. Cherish each one while it remains, because one day your life will be poorer for its absence.
I did this exercise on my way down a sidewalk that I used to walk down, once or twice a week. I stopped and literally did this very exercise and what I found was that during that one minute, I was not judging the trash on the sidewalk as bad or the trees as good. I was simply present to the inherent beauty of everything in a way that is only possible if you are fully present.
Once you have a little more practice with this exercise, you might try imagining that one or more of your other senses might also leave you in a minute, and pay attention to the sounds, or sensations, or even thoughts you’re experiencing for that one minute as if you never will again. Or you could get existential and bring it all together and imagine that you only have one minute left to live, God forbid, and spend that minute appreciating every detail of the experience of being you. If you are diligent with this exercise, I promise you will see things you have never truly seen, and hear things you have never truly heard, and experience life in such a way that you have never truly experienced before.
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