How I Learned to Appreciate My Life

Happiness never seems to last. Satisfaction, joy, and excitement over something new wears off.

I’m a prime example of this. I see an opportunity at work. I’ll push and work to achieve a success. I’ll work hard because I believe I’ll be happy once I achieve it.

Which works. At least for a little while. Then it becomes the new normal. And I’m not really happy with it any more. And I’m looking for that next success. Because then maybe I’ll finally be satisfied. For more than just a little while, at least.

And it isn’t limited to work. A new phone. A new car. New clothes. All sorts of material possessions. A new gadget may bring some initial happiness. But shortly thereafter it’s just a part of everything else.

Psychologists refer to this as hedonic adaptation. A phenomenon in which we adapt to our new environment. And our overall level of happiness regresses to our normal levels.

An often-cited 1978 study reviewed both lottery winners and paraplegic accident victims. As expected, lottery winners saw an immediate spike in happiness and the recent paraplegic saw a similar drop. But following these immediate responses, both groups eventually returned to their pre-event happiness levels.

A lottery winner will soon take less pleasure in his new luxuries. They eventually just become the new normal. Whereas a paraplegic will find new pleasures in areas that previously went unnoticed.

We may work to achieve something. But once we have it, we become accustomed to it. And then bored with it.

In Debbie Millman’s Design Matters podcast with Gretchen Rubin, Debbie commented that often her students are “either waiting for happiness or planning ahead for happiness.”

Too often I associate happiness with some future state. I’ll be happy once I have this. Or once I do that. And I neglect the present for some future possibility.

I take things for granted. Including my family. I just assume they’ll always be there. And I stop truly valuing the time that I have with them.

I’m living a life that I only dreamed about while growing up. I married a woman I dreamed of marrying. I have the children that I dreamed of having. I have a great job and wonderful friends. I am truly blessed.

But I still spend more time thinking about things I don’t have. Instead of spending my time appreciating all the things I do.

To appreciate our fortunes in life, we just need to stop taking them for granted. And be grateful for their presence.

Stoic philosophy suggests a technique of negative visualization. A practice where we reflect on the things we value and contemplate that we’ve lost them. To pause and reflect on all of the things that bring joy to my life. And then consider how they could all be taken away from me.

In A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, William B. Irvine gives the following summary:

“Most of us spend our idle moments thinking about the things we want but don’t have. We would be much better off, Marcus [Aurelius] says, to spend this time thinking of all the things we have and reflecting on how much we would miss them if they were not ours.”

Morbid? Gloomy? Perhaps. But it helped me realize that the wonders of my life are not guaranteed. My family is not an infinite promise. My health is here today, but could be gone tomorrow. All of life’s benefits, I’m merely leasing them for today. For this moment. When they are gone, will I have appreciated them fully?

Periodically within the week, I’ve made it a habit to consider losing those things I value in life. Reading the following script helps me rebaseline my priorities.

  • Consider that the kids will not be with you indefinitely. Every day, every moment with them could be your last. They are a gift for the present.
  • Consider that your wife’s health could fail. It’s a privilege that you can spend each night at home with her instead of in a hospital.
  • Consider that you could be demoted from management for any one of numerous mistakes. Your ability to work with and develop people would be severely limited. It’s a privilege to have this job. And such opportunity for growth.
  • Consider if your job was no longer a stable fixture. You could be laid off or fired, as so many other unfortunate people. Maybe some of the daily annoyances aren’t really that bad.
  • Consider if you lost the ability to walk. You could no longer chase the kids around the house. Or play outside with them on the playground. Or teach them to play soccer and ride bikes. You probably wouldn’t value relaxing on the couch so much then.
  • Consider if you lost your hearing. Quiet would no longer be a sought after virtue. You wouldn’t ever hear your son’s laughter or your daughter’s reading.
  • Consider if you lost your friends. You’d no longer have confidants at work to lean on. To help you get through difficult times. To lend a supporting ear when you need it.
  • Consider if you lost the ability to see. You could no longer watch the kids playing, enjoy their school events, and take such a large part in their lives.
  • Consider if tonight is the last night that you’ll read bedtime stories and put the kids to bed. That tonight is the last time you’ll sing songs to them. The last time you’ll see them slowly drift into sleep.

I was skeptical. Why would I choose to consider these horrors? But it helps remind me of my values. Grounds me to what’s truly important in life.

While I play with my daughter, I silently reflect on the fact that she could be gone tomorrow. When I’m reading with my son, I consider that this could be our last time together. At some point, there truly will be a last time for all of this.

When I’m at work, I remember how fortunate I am to have a stable, reliable job. To be surrounded by quality people who want to make a difference. And the daily issues seem trivial in comparison.

I’m a little less likely to look towards the next item on my to-do list. Or take things for granted. Or spend time think about what I don’t have.

I’m a little less likely to take these things for granted. A little more likely to appreciate life. And a little more likely to stay happy.

Writing helps me realize just how little I know.