Towards the latter years of her life, my great-grandmother lived with my grandmother in Cork City, Ireland. I remember as a young boy that she had a saying: “Dere’s nuttin’ like da first cuppa’ tay!” (Translation: “There’s nothing like the first cup of tea.”) And so, using her Irish logic, she chose a huge mug with which to enjoy that first tea in the morning… and so made it last longer.
I was reminded of my great-grandmother’s habit when I came across a study into what urges us to keep going. Apparently, researchers noticed that it is largely negative factors. In a paper in The Review of General Psychology, these researchers argue that bad inputs have a more powerful impact on us that good ones.
From this study, behavioural psychologist, Nir Eyal, in his book Indistractable, summarises four psychological factors that make our satisfaction temporary. These might answer the question: Why is there nothing like the first cup of tea in the morning?
- Boredom. We repeat something often enough and it becomes more tedious with each repetition. It spurs us to experiment. (Hat tip to Taylor Swift and her song, “Shake it Up”!)
- Negativity Bias, where our natural alertness to the down-sides help us seek safer, surer, easier alternatives. Fear can change what we do, but only temporarily
- Rumination, where we dwell on past negative events and outcomes. We can replay them in our minds over and over again. So, we seek a better outcome this time, and
- Hedonic Adaptation, the experience we all have that a pleasurable experience first time is less so as it is repeated. Like that first cup of tea, it wanes in pleasure with later cups. So, we return to the wisdom of Taylor Swift.
However, “Enough of the dark side,” I say.
I believe there are positive equivalents to these four that can maintain, even increase, our satisfaction and maybe even help motivate us to improve as well.
- Instead of boredom, we can excite a sense of curiosity. For example, before reading any new book now, I write down three questions I want the author to answer. This helps me focus as I read, and it respects the way the human brain works, which seeks to close open loops (questions). Rather than starting a book with vague hopes, like “Impress me,” or “Entertain me,” I read hunting for clues. I give my mind permission to be curious.
- Instead of giving in to a default negativity bias, I cultivate gratitude. In my daily journal, I hunt for three things for which I am grateful and explain to myself why I am thankful for them. As well as raising my level of emotional contentment—as it invariably does—this helps me in the present moment to contribute to tomorrow’s gratitude statements, such as while I am writing this article, for example. This too helps spur me on.
- Instead of negative rumination, I practice what Cal Newport describes in Deep Work as savouring: allowing myself to remember and dwell upon a happy event or sensation. Such meditation spurs me to take actions such as put aside some cash for my family celebrations and holidays. I do this, because savouring helps me realise the bliss of those experiences with my loved ones.
- And rather than giving in to hedonic adaptation, I take joy in the familiar, in the present moment. I encourage myself to laugh with family and friends. Joy rises in me when I am walking outdoors. And we all need to laugh more. Children get it. We adults have forgotten to laugh.
So, maybe our defaults are negative, but we can exercise agency, by choosing consciously positive practices. These may need us to be a little more intentional, but these routines can help us sustain, or even increase, our levels of satisfaction , our physical and mental health, and motivate us to live fuller, richer lives.
So, if you identify with a lifestyle of boredom, negativity and fear, dwelling on past hurts and failures, and finding the familiar now somewhat less than exciting, you don’t have to buy a huge mug; just be more Taylor Swift!
The Seven Keys to Exceptional Work
This fourth edition of my ebook shares more on the Seven Keys to that I have discovered that lead to exceptional work and outcomes.