The other day on a skype call, with me in Thailand, and my Mum in the UK, she said something that gave me a jolt. We were chatting, and in one of the pauses where I was checking a date in my diary, she exclaimed ‘listen to the wonderful bird song!’. I was momentarily disconcerted – was she talking to me, or someone else where she was? And then I listened, really listened, and realized that the air around me was filled with birdsong. So many birds, all singing different songs and notes, making a harmonious and beautiful noise. Which when I first came to Thailand, I noticed all the time, and then again when I first came to Koh Phangan, but over time, I’ve become so accustomed to it it’s faded into the background.
Habituation (the psychology bit)
This phenomenon is called habituation by psychologists, and means that when we are exposed to something over and over again, our original response decreases. So, if we take more and more painkillers, our body habituates to them and we need more for them to take effect. If we hear a loud noise once, we are startled, if it’s fireworks night, by the end of the evening we are a lot less startled by a ‘bang’ then we were at the beginning. We get used to it and don’t notice it as much.
It’s relevant and present in all kinds of areas and animals as well as humans, from the startle reflex in rats to a recent psychological study which found using an ‘unusual’ or ‘strange’ method of candidate attraction increased both the quality and the quantity of the candidate pool. Thus, what the study calls ‘changing things up’ might help organisations to differentiate themselves from others – helping get past the ‘habituation’ of candidates to the regular recruiting methods.
I used to live in a flat that was quite near a train track. Trains went past about 6 times an hour. At first I was quite nervous about it, thinking it might keep me awake or would be really loud, but in fact, after a very short time I didn’t notice the trains at all. And even guests who came for more than a few hours also started to habituate to the noise and not notice it.
This is an important evolutionary reflex, which enables us to function in everyday life. It means that we are able to focus our attention on the things that are important in our current environment – 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.
But it also means, that small things, beautiful things, can be lost to us. We become habituated to amazing and wonderful things in our environments, like birdsong. It made me think about the other things in my everyday environment I might have ‘habituated’ to. It also comes at a time when I am working through yet another online personal development activity, and one of the current activities is looking at the things I am grateful for. It’s a good exercise, as this one suggests you look at five different areas (Livelihood and Lifestyle; Body & Wellness; Creativity & Learning; Relationships and Society and Essence & Spirituality – of course, you can cut ‘life’ up anyway you choose, but this is as good as any!), and be specific. So not just, I’m grateful to live in Thailand, but, I’m grateful to live in Thailand because of the sunshine and freedom that it provides me with.
So I thought I would share some of my recent gratitudes with you, as it would give you more of a sense of what I have here, and also an insight into what’s important to me.
I am grateful
- For my gorgeous and spacious bungalow, which gives me privacy and solitude when I need it – and a lovely hammock!
- That my family support my current lifestyle choice, as without their support, emotional and otherwise, I would find it a real challenge to let go of my life in the UK
- That I’m employable in SE Asia, so I can finance my amazing adventures
- For learning to ride a scooter (and my friend Caroline for helping me and pushing me, and, well, I’m just generally grateful to and for her!); as I really felt strong when I overcame this fear, and it’s given me wonderful freedom on KP
- For the yoga and meditation courses that I am doing, which are helping me strengthen my body and focus and centre my mind, and discover a lot more about who I am
- For the amazing and beautiful new friends I have made, and the fun we have together, as they remind me to be sociable
- For time to myself, to work on my various projects, to think, to dream, and to just be
- For all the opportunities for learning and growth on my travels
- For everyone who reads my blog, which has been a real learning experience, not just in terms of writing (it has been fascinating to realize I actually quite enjoy it), but also in terms of how a blog actually works and what it is and does
- For the island I live on, which provides a glorious, picture-book sunset almost every night
The bigger impact of habituation – and how travel can help
On a grander, perhaps more conceptual scale, maybe we can habituate to things like having free speech, or the right to vote, or even clean water and sanitation. Things that become part of our environments, or fade into the background. At the yoga school I am attending we recently did a meditation for Turkey, and the situation there. It reminded me of all the benefits of living in the UK, and the opportunities that I got in the UK I wouldn’t get elsewhere, from being able to protest peacefully against those involved in the arms trade, to having a liberal education.
Travel has both given me many things to be grateful for, and also it has highlighted the things in my environment I might have previously habituated to. For example, having to buy drinking water means I have a very different attitude to it than in the UK where it just comes out of the tap – I am much more conscious of using it, rather than it being part of my background. Of course, as my introduction to this piece suggests, I have to be careful I don’t habituate to this new environment.
I enjoy the literal travel side of things (as demonstrated in my three-day-diary here, here and here), but I also enjoy staying in one place. So I’m determined to keep being grateful, and watch out for habituating – to keep enjoying the small background pleasures like the sunsets, beaches, butterflies, space, birdsong, and lush greenery, as well as the more obvious ones like new experiences, people, travel and the many other opportunities I am currently gifted with.
Have a think about your own life. What have you habituated to? What might you refocus your attention on to remind you of the beauty, pleasure and delight that already exists in your own life? And what are you grateful for? Specifically? Let me know in the comments below.