If you’re anything like me, and you maintain a healthy-ish diet that cuts out certain foods that you don’t digest well, you probably find yourself eating a lot of the same meals over and over again. Before you know it, that baked salmon with beets and avocado dish that you relished when you took your first bite starts to feel a little stale.
Now, a new study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin has found a way to get you out of the relationship rut you have with your food, and it’s ingeniously simple: to feel that same euphoric rush that you had when you ate something for the very first time, try eating it in an unconventional way.
For the study, Ohio State University researchers told 68 people that they were conducting an experiment on how to help people eat more slowly. They instructed half of the participants to eat 10 kernels of popcorn one at a time using their fingers. They then told the other half to eat the kernels one at a time using chopsticks. Afterwards, the participants were asked to rate the experience, and those who used chopsticks reported enjoying the flavors of this common snack much more than those who used their hands.
“When you eat popcorn with chopsticks, you pay more attention and you are more immersed in the experience,” Robert Smith, co-author of the study and assistant professor of marketing at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, said in a university newsletter. “It’s like eating popcorn for the first time.”
The researchers then repeated the trial and found that, this time, everyone was kind of whatever about the popcorn, indicating that it’s not the chopsticks that made the food more enjoyable, but simply the novelty of eating it in a different way.
“This suggests chopsticks boost enjoyment because they provide an unusual first-time experience, not because they are a better way to eat popcorn,” Smith said.
The researchers then conducted another experiment to see whether or not this theory holds up with something as important but unexciting as water. Three hundred participants were asked to drink water in an unconventional way, be it via a wine glass, a shipping envelope, or even lapping at it like a cat.
As expected, those who drank it in an unconventional way enjoyed the water much more than those who had it in a boring, run-of-the-mill bottle. If you’re trying to cut down on alcohol, by the way, drinking seltzer out of a champagne flute also happens to be a great way to trick your mind into thinking your having a bit of bubbly.
The results of this fascinating study can boost our enjoyment of our food, but it also speaks to a greater truth about how humans experience joy, and how to genetically engineer more of it in your daily life. Yale’s popular psychology course, “The Science of Well-Being,” focuses a lot on hedonic adaptation—the observed tendency of humans to return to a relatively stable emotional state regardless of what happens in our lives. This survival tactic is the reason you get so excited about your new car when you first buy it and then don’t even notice it a few months down the line, and in many ways it’s the biggest impediment to our happiness.
Luckily, there are a lot of things you can do to thwart hedonic adaptation, and one of them is to experience something old in a new way.
In their fourth experiment, researchers asked participants to watch an exciting video of a motorcycle ride three times and rate their enjoyment of it. For the third viewing, some of the participants watched the video upside down, others were asked to cup their hands around their eyes and bop their heads, and others viewed it the conventional way. Those who watched the video upside down didn’t enjoy it very much as they felt it was disorienting. But those who used “hand goggles” not only enjoyed the video much more than those who saw it the normal way, they were also three times more likely to ask to download it.
“They actually thought the video was better because the hand-goggles got them to pay more attention to what they were watching than they would have otherwise,” Smith said. “They were more immersed in the video.”
So if you want to boost your enjoyment levels, don’t get new stuff. Instead, try doing something new with what you already have. Take a new commute to work. Take a painting class with your wife. Drink your morning OJ out of a wine glass.
As Smith wisely put it, “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.”
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