We do what we like and we like what we do

Andrew WK, “Party Hard”

Although it seems obvious that we do things because we like them, I believe we might have it backwards: we actually like things because we do them.

Let me explain.

I used to have a job in the music industry that involved being out late every night, socialising and making connections. When I tell that to people I’ve only known for a few years, they can’t believe it – because it seems so at odds with what I’m like now.

I got into the music industry because I was obsessed with music, not for the partying. At first, I found all the late nights and networking uncomfortable and exhausting. But after a while…I loved it.

Then, for various reasons unrelated to the nightlife, I stopped working in music. I started staying in most nights, and going to bed at 10pm…and I loved that.

Was I just “tricking” myself into enjoying the partying at the time because it was a necessary part of working in a field I loved? Did I undergo a shift in what I wanted in life at the exact time I left? There’s probably an element of both of those, but I believe there’s also the “we like what we do” factor.

Another example: I went to watch football every weekend from the age of about eight to sixteen. I loved it. Then for a combination of reasons, it became much more difficult for me to get to games. After a couple of months, I didn’t miss it at all and I loved my new weekends (consisting mainly of being hungover and playing guitar, as I recall).

Yet another example: I used to eat a lot of meat, and was known for always ordering the burger wherever I went. Then for ethical reasons I became largely vegetarian…and now I love it. I don’t miss eating meat at all, and actively enjoy the vegetables and beans that seemed like pointless side-dishes before.

With all of these changes, the normal, obvious explanation would be:

  1. Something changed in me, and I went off the idea of something I previously enjoyed
  2. I identified a new thing that suited me better
  3. As a result of the change in me, I liked the new thing more than the old thing

That’s the story I’d tell. If you asked me why I left the music industry, I’d say it’s because I was getting older and the nights out weren’t what I wanted anymore. If you asked me why I stopped going to watch football, I’d say it’s because an influx of money had changed the game for the worse.

Those stories are plausible and rational…I just don’t think they’re actually true. I suspect the true causality might be:

  1. Started doing something differently for entirely arbitrary or circumstantial reasons
  2. Started liking that new thing as a result of doing it

Steady state

One of the most amazing human attributes is habituation: our ability to mentally adapt to any change in circumstances, good or bad.

Habituation underpins our amazing psychological resilience at one end of the scale, and our persistent vague dissatisfaction with everything at the other. It’s the explanation for why a year after either winning the lottery or becoming disabled in an accident, most people have returned to their previous level of happiness.

Take this innate mechanism for keeping us in a steady state, add on top the natural desire for routine and predictability, and you can see where we like what we do might come from.

If you buy into it, that’s great news – because it means making a change is less daunting than you think.

If you’re in a position where you can no longer do something you currently love doing, you won’t miss it as much as you think – because part of loving it is the familiarity that comes from doing it.

If you’re in a position where you have to start doing something you don’t like the idea of, it won’t be as bad as you imagine – because the familiarity will mean you start enjoying it.

You’ll have to choke down the kale or drag yourself out of the door for a run the first few times, but before long your brain will rewire itself – and you’ll enjoy your new activities just as much as you did your old ones.

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