The Surprising Benefits of Repeat Experiences

Rewatching a favorite movie with a group can create an entirely new experience. (Photo: Impact Photography/Shutterstock)

Today I visited San Francisco's modern-art museum, SFMoma: I was there to see a new exhibit about spaceflight and a recently acquired Leonora Carrington painting. But the piece of art that made me cry was a familiar one: Frida Kahlo's portrait of herself with her husband, Diego Rivera, which I've seen a half-dozen times. I like to "visit" this particular painting every time I go to the museum because it evokes strong feelings, but also because I always find something new — this time it was the way Frida and Diego's hands weren't quite clasped. If you know about Kahlo's difficult, grasping relationship with her unfaithful spouse, you'll know this detail is revealing.

My experience of finding something new in something familiar is precisely why a new study has found that repeat experiences like this are valuable. The study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, was a review analysis, which means it gathered a number of studies on the subject to look at a wide variety of information on the idea of repeated experiences. In looking at seven different studies that examined revisiting a museum or restaurant, replaying a game or rewatching a movie, the researchers found that study participants routinely predicted that they wouldn't enjoy the repeated experience as much as they actually did.

There's real pleasure to be found in rereading a beloved book, or cranking up that album you've heard 1,000 times. Some of that enjoyment comes from the feeling of familiarity and comfort of what's known, of course. But it also comes from noticing new things in that which is so familiar. As the study authors write, "Doing something once may engender an inflated sense that one has now seen 'it,' leaving people naïve to the missed nuances remaining to enjoy." But there's plenty more to see, hear, taste, smell, feel, or understand the second or third time around — which is easy to forget.

It can be even more exciting to find something new in a known place than to see something entirely new because the former is more of a potential surprise. You know that going to a new country is going to bring you countless experiences and visions you've never had, but when a hike up your favorite local mountain reveals something previously unnoticed, it can feel like a deeper revelation. It's unexpected. The natural world is especially good at revealing small and important changes in familiar landscapes, but it happens in the human-created world, too.

But to notice these things, and appreciate them, you may have to practice as this TedEx video explains in greater detail.

Put on a new set of glasses for a new view

So how do you stop taking things for granted? If you're feeling a bit bored but are stuck in your routine, there are ways to make discovering the exciting new thing in the familiar more likely to happen:

"All you need to do is approach whatever task is at hand by searching for the things that you didn't see in the first time around," Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard and mindfulness expert, told The New York Times. "First, recognize that everything is always changing, so the second experience is never exactly the same as the first experience," she said. "Second, if you're looking for novelty, that's itself engaging, and that engagement feels good." Lastly, try to remove judgement from the experience, if possible, and just observe what's new. For example, look for the ways in which a change in your neighborhood is interesting or exciting (and save your feelings for opposing a development or frustration with a neighbor's lawn for when you want or need to take action on it).

Another way to cultivate the new in the familiar is changing up your routine and doing doing a fast of some kind. That could mean eliminating sugar, coffee, a certain kind of media (tv shows, or social media) from your life for a specified time. Once the fast is up, that same thing will have more of its former interest or excitement.

"Coffee will never taste as good as it does if you quit it for a month. So it's true that novelty is fun, but given enough of a break in between, repeat experiences regain that initial buzz," Michael Norton, a professor at Harvard Business School, told the Times.

The original study's authors suggest social scientists should reassess the value of repeat experiences. Maybe we all should. "Repetition too could add an unforeseen spice to life," write the scientists in the original paper.

The opposite of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) is JOMO, the Joy Of Missing Out — isn't it interesting that it's fear that drives the first feeling and joy that motivates the second? Maybe many of us inherently understand some of what the recent study found about doing what we already know we like.

So go forth, and (mindfully) repeat something you love.