Chartered Occupational Psychologist, Consultant, Speaker and Writer

What are you missing?


Have you ever been surprised to realise how much someone else means to you – because they’re always there?

Have you ever realised you’d missed an interesting detail of your walk home – because you’d never looked up?

Have you ever found you’d forgotten to appreciate the small things in life – because you take them for granted?

The other day I was on a Skype call to a friend – her in the UK, me in Thailand – and she said something that gave me a jolt. In one of the pauses where I was checking something in my diary, my friend exclaimed “Wow, what beautiful birdsong!”

I was momentarily disconcerted – was she still talking to me?

And then I listened, really listened, and realized that the air around me was filled with a wonderful sound. Birds, all singing different songs, creating a harmonious and beautiful noise. When I first came to Thailand, I noticed it all the time, but over time, I’ve become accustomed to it and it’s faded into the background.

Too much of a good thing?

This phenomenon is called habituation by psychologists: when we are exposed to something over and over again, our original response decreases.

If our partner brings us a present for no reason, we’re pleased. If they bring us something every day, we start to take it for granted.

If we take a pill for pain, it makes us feel a little better. But the more we take, the more our body gets used to them so we need more to have an effect.

If we hear a loud noise, we’re startled. But if we hear one repeatedly – for example, at a fireworks display – we’re a lot less startled the thirtieth time we hear it than the first.

I used to live in a flat that was quite near a train track, where trains went past about six times an hour. When I moved in, the trains kept me awake, but after only a few days, I no longer noticed the trains at all.  Even guests who came for more than a few hours became habituated to the noise, not noticing it after they’d been in the house a short while.

Habituation is present in animals as well as humans, from the startle reflex in rats to a psychological study which found using an ‘unusual’ method of candidate attraction increased both the quality and the quantity of the candidate pool.

Why Habituation Helps Us Function

Habituation is an important evolutionary reflex, which enables us to function in everyday life.

It’s one of the ways in which we are able to focus our attention on the things that are important in our current environment. At any given moment, we are bombarded by bits of information hitting our brain in different ways. We can only pay attention to a small number of these at a time.

If we were constantly attending to everything that changed – a noise, a movement, a smell – we would quickly become overwhelmed by the huge numbers of stimuli in our environments and be unable to function.

We Can Get Used to Almost Anything…

But the flip side of habituation is that small things, beautiful things, can be lost to us.

Things that are a regular part of our environment can fade into the background – even amazing and wonderful thing, like birdsong.

One antidote to this for me has been travel, which, for example, has given me a new appreciation of aspects of my upbringing or country of birth – like education, the right to drive, and a free health service.

Travel, and seeing things in a different light, has changed my attitude to things I used to take for granted.

For example, living in Thailand, I buy drinking water, and no longer get this direct from the tap. It’s made me more conscious of how I use it, and reminded me that it’s a precious resource, and not something I simply take for granted.

One Way We Can Stop Habituating

One practice to stop taking things for granted is gratitude.

Taking a moment or two of your day to actively notice something you usually take for granted – the scent of your morning coffee, the hug your friend gives you to greet you, the laugh your partner gives at your jokes – will bring these small pleasures back to your attention, and mean that you feel happier without anything external needing to change.

But be specific.

Don’t just say you’re grateful for your mother, say you’re grateful to her for the way she’s always in your corner, or the awesome chocolate cake she bakes on your birthday.

I’m determined to keep being grateful, and watch out for habituation. I want to keep enjoying small background pleasures like butterflies, hammocks and birdsong, as well as the more obvious ones like new experiences, people, travel and the many other opportunities I am currently gifted with.

So ask yourself, what are you taking for granted? What have you become habituated to?

And how can you refocus your attention on the beauty, pleasures and delight which already exist in your own life?

9 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • Elle October 19, 2015, 10:03 pm

    Gratitude is it for me Ellen and I’m happy to know it interferes with habituation. I wouldn’t want to stop noticing the birds singing or the red flash of cardinals as they flit around my window. And amazingly enough I find being grateful for regular things, like constant hot water and air conditioning to keep me cool in the Florida summers means I tend to look for other things to be grateful for throughout the day.

    Love your take on this. :-)
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    • Ellen October 20, 2015, 7:42 am

      I agree Elle, these simple pleasures are such a joy to include in our lives, and that’s a great point – gratitude begets gratitude x

  • Cathy Taughinbaugh October 19, 2015, 10:08 pm

    Great suggestions here Ellen to practice gratitude so as not to take life for granted. I also like the idea of being more specific as well. My habit is to list what I’m grateful for after I write a journal entry. It helps remind me of all that is going well in my life. The small things in life can make such a difference.
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    • Ellen October 20, 2015, 7:46 am

      Thanks Cathy, and good suggestion – tying gratitude to another habit is a way to make sure we keep it front of mind, and keep things in perspective.

  • njoku remigius u John October 20, 2015, 9:51 pm

    Ellen Bard! You being so faithful to your calling, I enjoyed your pieces of information…so inspiring and problem solving!

    • Ellen October 21, 2015, 8:30 am

      Thanks for reading! :-)

  • Karissa October 21, 2015, 1:24 am

    I’ve had the same experience skyping with friends overseas who notice the noises around me that I’ve “tuned out,” some beautiful and melodic, others loud and less than pleasant. I rediscovered some new gratitude just this morning and can always use a reminder to stop and watch the falling Autumn leaves, smell the fresh brewed coffee by my desk or linger in a sweet embrace. Thanks, Ellen, I am always uplifted by your articles!

    • Ellen October 21, 2015, 8:31 am

      Thank you for your comment, and those sound like some lovely things to appreciate. It amazes me how many things there are in our environments we don’t notice – as you say, both good and bad.

  • sherill January 28, 2016, 12:20 am

    Hi, I can totally resonate with you, after reading your post, I realized that i got habituated from the sound of the birds chirping near my bedroom window, it just seems normal for me hearing them, but when we first moved in, i love to listen to it every morning when i wake up, it felt really good. Thanks for sharing your post,being aware about the little blessings that surrounds us makes a big difference in our lives. Great read.
    sherill recently posted…Afformations ExamplesMy Profile

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