What happens when we stop taking the "goods" of our life for granted? What happens when we suddenly realise how lucky we are? And why can't we keep hold of this appreciation?
To some degree, most of us human beings suffer from what I call the “taking for granted syndrome.” For much of the time, we fail to appreciate the full value of our health, of the people we love, of our peace, freedom and prosperity, and even of life itself. We appreciate how valuable these things are when they’re taken away from us – for example, when we become ill, or when we’re separated from our loved ones. Then, when we return to health and are reunited with our loved ones, we can really feel how lucky we are to have them. Then we live in a state of real appreciation, in which we feel buoyant and free from anxiety. However, it’s usually not too long before we begin to take these “blessings” for granted again, at least to some degree.
Part of the reason for this taking for granted syndrome is our tendency to quickly adapt to new environments and situations. When we’re first exposed to new experiences and environments, they affect us powerfully – think of the first few days in an unfamiliar foreign country, the first few days in a new job, or the first exposure to a new smell or taste. But these experiences lose their sensory power as we become habituated to them. There seems to be a psychological mechanism of “de-sensitization,” which quickly filters out the intensity of experiences, turning newness to familiarity.
However, I believe it is possible to transcend the taking for granted syndrome, and to live in a constant state of appreciation. And the first step along the way to this state is to understand how and why our moments of appreciation occur.
I’ve recently begun to study people’s “appreciation experiences” in order to do this. After collecting a number of these experiences, I’ve found that there are three main types, which I’ll describe briefly here.
Appreciation through Absence
This is the kind of appreciation I’ve just described, which we feel when the “basic goods” of our lives are taken away from us. Many of the US astronauts who travelled to the moon experienced this very intensely. On their return, they felt incredibly grateful to be alive on the surface of the planet Earth, and grateful simply to be able to breathe, eat and walk around freely. One person told me of an appreciation experience after an operation in which there was a slight risk of losing her sight. When she came to and realised that she could still see, she felt an immense appreciation for her vision which lasted for weeks afterwards. As she told me, “I relished seeing my family and friends, my house, my garden – even things that normally seemed ugly, like factories and run down inner city streets. It had never really occurred to me before how lucky I was just to be able to see. The world seemed beautiful in a way I’d never realised before.”
A close brush with death – through a sudden illness, a diagnosis of cancer, an accident or injury – can also induce a heightened state of appreciation. The threat of the absence of life can make us feel intensely grateful just to be alive, and to be able to experience everyday life.
Appreciation through Comparison
Appreciation experiences are also prompted by comparison, when we see our own situations in relation to other people who aren’t as fortunate as us. We’re reminded of the value of our “basic goods” by witnessing the absence of them in other people.
You may well have experienced this while travelling. About 20 years, I had a powerful appreciation experience while traveling through India. I was so affected by the poverty, the malnutrition and ill-health I saw that when I returned to Europe I felt as though I had a new perspective on my life. I felt incredibly lucky to live in a part of the world where life was easy and secure, and to have a healthy body, to which I could easily provide proper nourishment. I remember saying to myself when I arrived home, “I’m never going to complain about anything ever again!” (It didn’t last of course!)
A simple example of this type of appreciation was given me by a correspondent last week, in reaction to the depressing news events of recent days: "I’m having one of those days where you really understand how incredibly lucky you are, when you think about Gaza and Syria and Ukraine and people nearer to home who are hungry and homeless or sick and without hope. So much human suffering all around. I have such a lot to be grateful for today and it's truly humbling."
This is a distinctly different type of appreciation to the two previous types, in that it doesn’t come from an external source – that is, it isn’t prompted by an experience of absence or dependent on a reminder or comparison. Conscious appreciation arises naturally from giving our full attention to our surroundings and our experience. It’s the sense of natural appreciation we might feel when we feel relaxed and our minds are fairly quiet, and we perceive the world around us freshly and directly.
I heard from a woman who experienced this “conscious appreciation” after being diagnosed with breast cancer. As she described it to me, “I began to feel real gratitude for the birds visiting my garden, the rays of sunshine streaming through trees, the light took on a richness which I found so beautiful. My life was in turmoil but I was so grateful for those experiences.”
Another woman described how she experiences conscious appreciation when she practises meditation: “After a meditation, gratitude follows and takes over. Sometimes it’s a combination of peace, joy, being at home and being grateful.”
These moments of appreciation are so important because they show us a glimpse of reality. After all, in most appreciation experiences, we only become aware of what is already there, what was always there, but which we have stopped paying attention to. Our lives are filled with blessings which we forget to count. Every day of our lives is filled with experiences and activities which we should relish, but which we subconsciously dismiss as dreary. So when we have appreciation experiences it’s a little like waking up, after forgetting that we were asleep.
I’m collecting example of appreciation experiences for my research. If you would like to contribute, please write about your experience as a comment to this article, or send it directly to me at email@example.com
Steve Taylor PhD is senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Met University, and the author of Back to Sanity: Healing the Madness of the Human Mind. www.stevenmtaylor.com
Follow Steve on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SMTaylorauthor