⏯️ Happy Habit #12: Interrupt Your Consumption

• 4 min read

Pick one of your favorite foods, drinks or pleasures—and take a break for a specific amount of time.

Research Overview

The 'hedonic treadmill' describes a phenomena where we experience declining satisfaction over time. One way to subvert this downhill treadmill is to do something counterintuitive: Take a break.

Despite not wanting to take a pause from food, drinks and experiences we enjoy, breaks actually make us enjoy these experiences more [1, 2].

Core concept

It's human nature to want more of good things. If we can consume it, we want more of it.

This likely originates from our hunter gather ancestry where food was much more scarce than it is today. When harvesting berries it was important to accumulate as much as possible as they wouldn't be around for long and you didn't know when your next meal would be.

I've found myself falling into this trap with every type of pleasure and luxury. My main vices are coffee, tea and wine.

As soon as I tasted a single origin Ethiopian natural coffee with my friend Jordan in Littleton, CO, I never wanted to drink anything else again. That sweet, berry bursting flavor without a hint of bitterness had me hooked.

Normalizing experiences

The problem is we quickly adjust to whatever sensory experience comes our way. We normalize our levels of satisfaction very quickly. What once would have been considered "the best cup of coffee I've ever had" is now just the standard, the expectation.

You go searching for even finer things done even better—spending more and more time and money climbing a treadmill that declines downhill.

The end result is that we find ourselves dissatisfied with most things in life which actually should be sources of pleasure.

Interrupt consumption

The key to this is to take a break. Decide "Okay, from now until X date, I'm going to stop drinking coffee" (or whatever it is you like to do).

The impact is profound. At first, your brain starts nagging at you to seek out the sensory pleasure you've grown used to. This in itself is a great source of prompts for practicing self-awareness. If you can simply observe the triggering sensors of your dopamine receptors directing your attention outward to your source of satisfaction, you can an incredible insight into the mechanics of self control.

Then after a number of days you simply stop craving the pleasure and get used to not having it. Days go by and time rolls on... suddenly your date to reintroduce your chosen satisfaction is just around the corner.

Something to look forward to

Suddenly, what was once a normal part of your life is now a tantalizing future experience. The research shows that the simple act of looking forward to an experience produces pleasure and increases a sense of well-being in it's own right.

In addition to taking a break in your consumption pattern, you can also 'split' your dosage with a delay in between to increase your satisfaction. Instead of having a glass of one at dinner, you can try pouring yourself half a glass at dinner—savor it, and pour yourself another half a glass after you've done the dishes.

The net satisfaction is shown to be much greater than just having it all in one go.

Behavior tips

The behavior mechanics around this are pretty simple. I'd recommend:

  1. Write down a list of all your 'guilty pleasures' (things you spend time and money on outside yourself)
  2. Pick one of them and commit not to do it for a reasonable and specific amount of time.
  3. Write down the statement "I'm not [behavior] until [set time] so that I can build willpower and increase my satisfaction over time."
  4. Share your commitment with your friends and whoever you engage in that pleasure with.
  5. Tell them the rationale behind your interruption. Remind yourself too.
  6. Stick to your commitment and savor the moment when you reintroduce the pleasure!

I highly recommend it. I've taken a good number of breaks from coffee, tea and wine over the years and I always get a massive boost in satisfaction after reintroducing them. Eventually the pleasure wanes and it's time to interrupt again. It's a nice cycle the play with.

Start small

You might want to start out with a short interruption (one day or one week), uphold yourself to abstain for that entire period and then celebrate success. Make yourself feel good about the self-discipline and increased satisfaction. Then use that as fuel for your making your next interruption a bit longer.

Going a step further

I've found that beyond interrupting pleasures there's a whole new territory in deciding to stop eating food for a set period of time. Intermittent fasting (not eating for 14-18 hours a day) has a hole host of benefits, but it can be a fun challenge to fast for 24 hours, or even longer if you feel comfortable.

The taste of a ripe pear after 24 hours of not eating food is not to be underestimated! What a joy!

Do what works for you

Now fasting isn't for everyone, I get it. But if you have some pleasures that you've normalized in your life it might be worth considering a time blocked period of interruption.

The science shows you'll get a massive boost in satisfaction after you reintroduce  the pleasure and you'll also build a good amount of willpower along the way.

Have fun!

As always: Only do what you want to do, have fun with this stuff and be kind to yourself.

If you didn't resonate with this week's happy habit, check out the archive of previous issues for some more inspiration:

  1. 🖊  Gratitude Journal
  2. 🤔 Three Good Things
  3. ⌛️ Savor The Last Moment
  4. ✍🏻 Write a Letter to Forgive
  5. ☕️ Buy Coffee for a Stranger
  6. 🌬 Three-Minute Breathing Space
  7. 🍂  Forest Bathing (Shirin Yoku)
  8. 💬 Chat with Someone in Line
  9. 🗣 Speak to Yourself Like a Friend
  10. 😴 Sleep 7-8 Hours Per Night

If anyone comes to mind when reading this list, please do send them a link! Keen to spread the art and science of happiness as far and wide as possible.

Let me know how it goes

I'm keen to get your input. How did you like this week's edition? Did you try it?

Let me know anything that comes to mind. Always willing to strike up a conversation and explore new ways of playing with happiness and habit formation.

Until next time,

John


Citations

  1. Nelson & Meyvis (2008). Interrupted consumption: Adaptation and the disruption of hedonic experience. Journal of Marketing Research, 45(6), 654-664.
  2. Nelson et al. (2009). Enhancing the Television-Viewing Experience through Commercial Interruptions. Journal of Consumer Research, 36(2), 160-172.
← 🌊 Happy Habits #13: Find Your Flow
😴 Happy Habit #11: Sleep 7-8 Hours Per Night →

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