How to regain pleasure in just about anything

Are you tired of eating the same old foods every day? Have you had enough of your old furniture? Is your daily routine a drag? There's a simple way to regain lost enjoyment, a study says.

When I was in college, my creative writing tutor once asked my class to write poems while crouched under our desks.

At the end of the workshop, our tutor explained his reasoning.

He wanted to shake us out of our complacency and help us to beat the dreaded writers' block by changing our context to something completely unintuitive.

This way, he said, an activity that we may have grown bored of became an unexpected dare.

A new study from Ohio State University in Columbus and the University of Chicago at Illinois argues that by doing the same activities in unusual ways, we can enjoy them as if we are experiencing them for the first time.

A similar principle could apply to the enjoyment of things — say, furniture that no longer tickles our fancy — according to authors Ed O'Brien and Robert Smith. For instance, if one would move an old pair of shelves from one room to another, the change of context may "refresh" one's perception of these objects.

The scientists base these conclusions on the findings of several experiments that they conducted, and which assessed first an eating, then a drinking, and finally a video watching, experience. The results have been reported in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Eating popcorn with chopsticks?

In the first experiment, O'Brien and Smith worked with 68 people who were told that they would be taking part in a project about "helping people eat more slowly."

Half of the volunteers were asked to eat 10 pieces of popcorn using their hands, while the rest of the participants ate the same number of popcorn pieces but using chopsticks to pick them up.

At the end of the experiment, all of the participants were asked to rate how much they had enjoyed eating the popcorn, as well as how flavorful they thought it was and how much fun they'd had eating it.

It turned out that the chopstick-wielding eaters found the experience more enjoyable than their counterparts, who tackled the snacks in the normal way.

But why? The clues came, once more, from the participants' reports. The chopstick users believed that the unusual technique allowed them to feel more focused on the eating and therefore more appreciative of the taste.

"When you eat popcorn with chopsticks," Smith notes, "you pay more attention and you are more immersed in the experience. It's like eating popcorn for the first time."

When the researchers repeated the experiment, though, all the participants seemed to enjoy the popcorn just as much, no matter how they ate the snack.

"This suggests," says Smith, "chopsticks boost enjoyment because they provide an unusual first-time experience, not because they [provide] a better way to eat popcorn."

Make it unusual, but not uncomfortable

In another experiment, the team worked with 300 participants, asking them to rate their experience of drinking water when they drank it the way they normally would versus when they had it in a "fresh, new, and fun" manner of their own invention.

The researchers discovered that the participants who drank water in unusual ways — from a martini glass, for instance, or from an envelope, or even lapping it up like a cat — said that they enjoyed it more than those who stuck to a normal water-drinking method.

O'Brien and Smith conducted another experiment that involved asking some volunteers to watch a very short video three times in a row. The clip — which had a 1 minute duration — featured a motorcycle ride filmed from the cyclist's perspective.

In the first two viewings, all the volunteers watched the video in a regular way twice in a row, rating their enjoyment in each instance.

For the final viewing, a third of the study participants were instructed to watch the clip using "hand goggles," which involved forming "lenses" with their thumbs and index fingers.

They were also asked to simulate a first-person experience by all moving their heads in unison with the movements of the motorcycle.

Another third of the group watched the video flipped upside down, and the remaining participants watched it in a normal way for the third time in a row.

Participants who watched the clip through "hand goggles" rated their enjoyment the highest, while those who watched it in the conventional way reported having lost interest in it by the third viewing.

Those who watched the video flipped upside down said that they had not enjoyed it very much — while this type of viewing was unusual, the researchers note, it was also uncomfortable, which explains their lack of enthusiasm.

'Easier than you might think'

To confirm that those who used "hand goggles" had a higher enjoyment of the video itself — not just of the funny experience — the scientists told all the volunteers at the end of the experiment that they were allowed to download the clip and keep it, if they wanted to.

Three times as many people who had watched the clip through "hand goggles" downloaded it as participants who had viewed it in other ways.

"They actually thought the video was better," says Smith, "because the hand goggles got them to pay more attention to what they were watching than they would have otherwise."

He adds that, as with the strange popcorn eating experience, viewers who watched the clip in an unusual manner "were more immersed in the video."

So, the authors suggest, by simply doing regular things in a completely different way, we may be able to regain a lost sense of enjoyment.

Why not try eating mac and cheese while sitting on the table instead of at the table? Or moving your armchair around the house to get a new perspective each time?

"It may be easier to make it feel new than you might think. It is also a lot less wasteful to find new ways to enjoy the things we have rather than buying new things."

Robert Smith