The Unexpected Joy of Repeat Experiences

By Leah Fessler

Scrolling through Instagram can quickly convince you that everyone’s life is more interesting than yours. During a particularly adventurous week on Instagram Stories recently, I saw water skiing in Maui, hiking in Yosemite and swimming with wild pigs in Bermuda. Wild pigs!

Impulsively, I started Googling flights to new places. Then I ordered pho from the same Vietnamese place I eat at every week and … felt bad about not trying somewhere new.

This fear of missing out is rooted in a common psychological tic: Evolutionarily, we’re disposed to find novel experiences more exciting and attention-grabbing than repeat experiences, according to research published in the Journal of Experimental Biology. It’s basically fight or flight psychology — our brains can’t process all the stimuli around us, so we evolved to pay attention to new, flashy and potentially dangerous things more intently than familiar things, which we’ve seen enough to know they’re not dangerous. What’s more, words like “repetition” and “repetitiveness” — unlike “novelty” — tend to be associated with more negative emotions, said Michael Norton, a professor at Harvard Business School.

“Classic research shows that when we think about upcoming experiences, we think about variety,” said Mr. Norton, who specializes in consumer behavior. “If I ask you right now to select a yogurt for each day next week, you’ll pick your favorite flavor — say, blueberry — a few times, but you’ll mix in some strawberry and peach. Because who wants to eat that much blueberry yogurt? Over the longer term, though, as the original experience fades in time and memory, repetition can become more pleasurable.”

He added: “We’re simply more boring than we’d like to admit.”

Our obsession with novelty is also enhanced by the influencer and experience economies, which confer social status based on how many new things you can do, see and buy, as Leah Prinzivalli unpacks in a recent article documenting the rise of Instagram to-do lists. This can be emotionally and financially draining: Few of us have the time or money to regularly indulge new experiences, which can lead us to feel bad about our lives’ monotony. However, recent research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology about repeat and novel experiences suggests we ought to reconsider how we digest those feelings of monotony.

This research centers on hedonic adaptation — when an identical stimulus provides less pleasure the more it’s consumed.

Some previous research has painted a negative picture of repeat experiences, citing that doing the same thing twice can feel inherently less valuable. But Ed O’Brien, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, wondered whether behavioral science misconstrued hedonic adaptation, and people actually underestimate how positively they react to repeat experiences. Many of us happily listen to our favorite song on repeat, he noted, or rewatch favorite movies and TV shows. This repetition was the whole point of purchasing music or film before the age of Spotify and Netflix. This conflict is why Mr. O’Brien launched a series of studies on the topic.

“There’s a general belief that if you want to seem like an interesting, cultured person, the best thing you can do is to showcase that you’re open to new experiences,” he said. “That may be true, but I think we take for granted the other value of really digging deep into one domain.”

To test this hypothesis, Mr. O’Brien and his team exposed all participants to the same stimulus once in full (various stimuli were tested, including museum visits, movies and video games). Next, some participants were asked to imagine repeating the experience, while others actually did repeat the experience.

Counter to previous research, Mr. O’Brien found that across the board, repeat experiences were far more enjoyable than participants predicted.

“Doing something once may engender an inflated sense that one has now seen ‘it,’ leaving people naïve to the missed nuances remaining to enjoy,” he wrote in the study.

In other words: You’re far more likely to enjoy something the second time around than you think.

Given that participants experienced the exact situation they imagined repeating, their predictions should’ve been relatively accurate, Mr. O’Brien explains. In reality, participants who repeated experiences found the second time around just as enjoyable as the first.

“Novel experiences are definitely great for enjoyment, and our studies don’t go against this idea,” he said. “In many cases, the novel option is better. But what our studies emphasize is that repeat options also might have high hedonic value and might also come with less costs to acquire than a purely novel option, and people might sometimes overlook this.”

There is joy in repetition partly because every human mind wanders. Consequently, we miss a substantial part of every experience.

“As I’m enjoying a museum or a beer, my mind is also thinking about emails I need to send, phone calls I need to return and the name of my third grade teacher,” Mr. Norton said. “So repeating things can really be seen as another opportunity to actually experience something fully.”

This is especially true when the experience is complex, leaving ample room for continued discovery.

“When an experience has many layers of information to unveil, it’s probably a good bet to repeat it,” Mr. O’Brien said. “The rub is that it’s hard to tell which experiences will be like this, and our studies show that people are too quick to assume that they’ve ‘seen all the layers’ even in those cases where they haven’t.”

In fact, it’s safe to assume there are more explorable layers in any experience, according to Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard and the so-called “Mother of Mindfulness.” That’s because the process of looking for new insights in any repeat experience is fulfilling in and of itself. It’s the essence of mindfulness.

“When you’re noticing new things in any experience, neurons are firing, and that’s the way to become engaged,” Ms. Langer said. “Many people look to be engaged, because they’re bored with life and they don’t know what to do. All you need to do is approach whatever task is at hand by searching for the things that you didn’t see in the first time around.”

If you’re unsure how to be more mindful in repeat experiences, Ms. Langer offers three tips.

“First, recognize that everything is always changing, so the second experience is never exactly the same as the first experience,” she said. “Second, if you’re looking for novelty, that’s itself engaging, and that engagement feels good.” And third, you must realize that events are neither positive nor negative. “It’s the way we understand events that makes them positive or negative,” she said. “So that if we look for ways the experience is rewarding, exciting, interesting, we’re going to find evidence for that. Seek and ye shall find.”

Beyond helping us feel excited at the prospect of staying home and strolling around your neighborhood this winter rather than jet-setting to a tropical beach, Mr. O’Brien’s research suggests we should think twice about our cultural obsession with doing and accomplishing as much as humanly possible.

“Coffee will never taste as good as it does if you quit it for a month. So it’s true that novelty is fun, but given enough of a break in between, repeat experiences regain that initial buzz,” Mr. Norton said. “This is why people do seemingly crazy things, like creating time capsules. If you looked at your third-grade report card every day, you’d get sick of it — but if you bury it in a time capsule and unearth it 20 years later, that’s fascinating.”

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