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The secret to happiness is seeing what you like, all the time, from your friends to clear skies Image Credit: Jhosua Rodríguez/

Turns out, Pavlov was right. The Russian psychologist proposed we learn by conditioning our brains – remember the dog that salivated every time the bell sounded? Apparently, we’re a lot like Pavlov’s dog sans the drool. In our case, the bell is a sight we see every day that slowly grows on us, simply because it’s there.

As obvious as this sounds, it is a psychological phenomenon that can actually help you reboot your life, for the better. We hold the power to train our minds to lead happier lives. And the best part? All you have to do is change your environment to get the ball rolling.

See it more to like it more

According to American social psychologist Robert Zajonc, familiarity does not breed contempt. He proved the statement in a seminal paper ‘Attitudinal Effects of Mere Exposure’ back in 1968.

Through a series of experiments, Zajonc showed that we tend to favour objects we’re repeatedly but subtly exposed to. He called this the ‘mere exposure effect’, otherwise known as the familiarity principle. Now think about the social and behavioural cues around us and all that we could have picked up without realising – good or bad. The effect, then, works both ways; the brain favours the good and the bad the more it sees it. 

We feel more secure as we are exposed more to the same person, object or social situation. It reduces the uncertainty in the environment.

- Dr Lakshmi Saranya, clinical psychologist at Lifeline Modern Family Clinic in Dubai

According to Dubai-based clinical psychologist Dr Lakshmi Saranya, it only takes a fraction of a second for our subconscious mind, one in charge of decision-making and storing habits, to internalise what it has seen.

“When there is repeated exposure to triggers or cues, there is a continuous firing of neurons. A certain part of the brain gets more activated because of this, which is why the sight begins to feel familiar,” she told Gulf News.

But why do we end up liking it?

“We feel more secure as we are exposed more to the same person, object or social situation. It reduces the uncertainty in the environment,” she answered.

Training the brain or tricking the brain?

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You might feel your energy levels dipping when the sky is overcast and gloomy. Image Credit: Unsplash/Vagelis Lnz

Humans are creatures of comfort; so it’s not hard to wrap our heads around why we unconsciously prefer familiarity over change. The sooner we realise this, the faster we can make smart decisions to keep toxic traits and habits at bay, before we get used to them.

“Contextual cues present around us have a very important role in the way we interpret things. There is a higher possibility that mere exposure will have a positive or negative effect on someone’s behaviour than not,” said Dr Saranya.

It all boils down to self-awareness, she adds, so that you can sound the alarm when you recognise a pattern. Be more cognisant of the space you place yourself in, the sights you constantly see and the people you work and live with.

I needed happy, positive people around me; I needed sunshine.

- Mariya Ali, Dubai-based management consultant

Dubai resident Mariya Ali did just that. Now a management consultant, the 37-year-old used to call London home four years ago, where she felt like her life was in a rut.

She told Gulf News: “I needed to make a complete transformation. I needed happy, positive people around me; I needed sunshine. Back in London, I used to constantly compare myself to friends who were at different positions in life. I was also diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) in the UK, so having sunshine in Dubai has boosted my mood completely.”

Over time, Mariya began to mirror her surroundings because she naturally developed a preference for it.

Dr Saranya often deals with patients who suffer from seasonal depression, and her advice for them is to “be around kind, compassionate and loving people… repeated exposure to kindness will help you love yourself and soon you won’t settle for anything less”.

The pitfalls of harmful exposure

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Growing up in a turbulent household can make children too accustomed to negative traits Image Credit: Pexels/cottonbro

Since this phenomenon works both ways, we are also society’s easiest targets. Our minds are no sieve for the good and bad. Just as we might sit next to a high-achieving colleague hoping to sponge off their intellect, what is to say we won’t internalise their harmful behaviour either?

Mere exposure effect can stump us in more ways than one. Dr Saranya says that those with poor response inhibition (your brain’s ability to say no to bad decisions) can fall victim to the wrong subliminal messages. She cites abusive relationships as one example.

“We can’t generalise, but kids who see their parents fighting growing up don’t mind getting into a relationship with someone who has anti-social traits. They are so used to it that they don’t mind it,” added Dr Saranya.

A work around to this is to ground yourself with the values you want in life. Interestingly enough, cues then become easier to differentiate.

My husband and I took a conscious call to move to a villa, and it just changed my mood, having my own backyard, too. It keeps me grounded since I’m very connected to Nature.

- Malvika Grover, 33-year-old senior manager in Dubai
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What do you value in life? Keep these in mind to keep the negativity around you at bay. It could even be as simple as walking on grass, if Nature is what keeps you grounded Image Credit: Unsplash/Nick Page

Malvika Grover, a 33-year-old senior manager in Dubai, has always known that Nature brings her the most comfort. So when she moved in to a villa from her apartment in Jumeirah Lake Towers, her yearlong slump finally came to an end.

“Something did not feel right – it was the most depressing year of my life,” she told Gulf News. “My husband and I took a conscious call to move to a villa, and it just changed my mood, having my own backyard, too. There is something called grounding, a practice that helps you return to Nature. Every morning before I start my day, I walk barefoot on the grass for 15 to 20 minutes. It keeps me grounded since I’m very connected to Nature.”

Absence does not make the heart grow fonder

To set this hack in motion, you need to be crystal clear on your values. From wanting a dose of sunshine to getting better at your job, the familiarity principle works with anything.

If you’re failing to meet deadlines, for example, you might just need to sit in close proximity with someone who does a spectacular job of it. Or, you might want to let go of another popularised adage, ‘misery loves company’, by nurturing good, happy vibes. Keep to a cheerful crowd that you will want to emulate, be it their outlook on life or attitude to life’s problems.

If you want to be in someone’s good books, show your face often because the more they see you, the more they’ll like you.