A couple of years ago, I wrote an article that explains why your dog is happier than you are.
The general idea is rather simple. Everything that happens in a dog’s life is new and stimulating. Each car ride brings a new adventure. For us humans, new things or new experiences soon become the new normal. Rather than being stimulating and refreshing, new things quickly become part of a new routine. We’re soon back in the same old rut. It’s known as hedonic adaptation or the hedonic treadmill.
I’ve remarked on this to many dog-owning friends and they all agree that it’s real. Their general explanation is that dogs live in the moment and we don’t.
But why would that be? Why would dogs live in the eternal present while we humans continue to flit back and forth between past, present, and future? To live in the present, we humans need special training in mindfulness and meditation. Why isn’t it just our natural state of being? It seems to work pretty well for dogs.
Then I considered what it takes to keep the human brain healthy. Most of the sources I’ve consulted suggest that seeking novelty is a key ingredient of brain health. Seeking out novel experiences, learning new skills, visiting new countries all stimulate us and contribute to brain health. Even reading a political columnist whom you disagree with can apparently contribute to a healthy brain. So can doing more things with your non-dominant hand.
Why would these activities contribute to brain health? Novelty stimulates new connections in the brain. We all have bazillions of brain cells. That’s all well and good but it’s the richness and density of the network that connects those cells that seems to influence brain health. Doing new things stimulates growth. Doing the same old things can reinforce existing connections but is less likely to create new ones.
So how do we encourage humans to seek novelty? Simple: make old things boring. Perhaps we experience the hedonic treadmill because we need novelty to promote brain health. With simpler brains, dogs don’t need a hedonic treadmill. They can live in the moment and stay perfectly healthy. We can’t.
Think about that the next time you’re lusting after a new car or a new house or a new toy. The acquisition might just bust your budget. But it might also make your brain healthier. At least for a while.