Thursday, August 30, 2012

Appreciating the Commonplace

I've been thinking about birds recently.  In particular, I've been pondering the thrill that runs through me every time I see this woodpecker visit our yard.  Sightings cause me to rush to the window, crying out "Look -- the woodpecker is at the feeder!"  Q has been very tolerant of these outbursts (even when they interrupt our conversations), but I suspect he doesn't understand my fascination with this red-headed avian.  Why does this bird make me so happy?  Obviously, it's a beautiful creature, with an elegantly long beak and rich coloration.  The brightly colored birds do tend to catch my eye (as I've noted before, I'm a sucker for color).   

But I think it's more than just color that drives my response to our visiting woodpecker.  I love the brilliantly red cardinals and the bright yellow finches, but the woodpecker gives me a special uplift.  Why?  Novelty and scarcity.  There were a few glimpses of a woodpecker last year, but this year is the first time I've seen one visit the feeder and even so, the visits are sporadic and very brief. So this bird is relatively new, and my sightings of it are infrequent.

New is more salient.

New is more exciting.  

So, of course, the novel woodpecker is more thrilling than the wrens and sparrows I see every day.  It's the same excitement that comes from seeing new places, meeting new people, doing new things.  But the impact of novelty wanes.  We might be jazzed by the new place initially, but over time, we adapt and it ceases to affect us as much (this has been called hedonic adaptation or the hedonic treadmill [Diener et al., 1999]).  If the woodpecker is back again next year, will I still be as excited?  Probably not.  I used to be thrilled by the sight of the cardinals, but as they have become a pretty regular fixture, I am less profoundly moved by cardinal sightings (although I do still point them out and enjoy their presence -- it is wonderful to see a bright red bird perched in the garden). 

Our focus on novelty also means that we are less likely to notice and appreciate our everyday experiences.  I run to the window to see the striking coloration of the new woodpecker, but I hardly notice the quiet beauty of the ubiquitous wrens, or the haunting cries of the mourning doves.  I just traveled to Vancouver, where I was eager to see the new sights in that city -- look at that building! See how beautiful the clouds are!  But how often to I truly appreciate all that Washington, DC has to offer?

One of the characteristics psychologist Abraham Maslow identified among self-actualized people is what he called the "continued freshness of appreciation," the ability to experience something with wonder, as though for the first time.  Artists and children often show this freshness of appreciation, pointing out the rusting sewer grate that we have ceased to notice and commenting on its color and texture.  The ability to appreciate our daily experiences is also related to happiness.  Studies have found that savoring life's joys and expressing gratitude for what we have makes people happier (Lyubomirsky, 2007).

It is, perhaps, inevitable that novelty will influence us.  Maybe I can't help but notice the new woodpecker more than the more common birds.  But I try to take that new experience and use it to refresh my view of the everyday.   If I'm inspired by the Victorian houses in San Francisco, I can come home to look at the houses in my neighborhood with a fresh eye.  The museums in Vancouver can inspire me to enjoy the wonderful exhibits at the Smithsonian museums.  We can use our wonder at novelty to renew our appreciation of the familiar.  In other words, the woodpecker can help me appreciate all the other birds, if I let it.   


Diener, E., Suh, E. M., Lucas, R. E., & Smith, H. L. (1999).  Subjective well-being: Three decades of progress.  Psychological Bulletin, 125, 276-302.

Lyubomirsky, S.  (2007).  The how of happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want.  The Penguin Press: New York.   Book website:

No comments:

Post a Comment