We are wired to remember bad experiences and normalise good ones.
I was reminded of this recently when reading a review of Apple’s MacBooks that launched late last year. They contained the M1, Apple’s first desktop-class chip based on a decade of custom chips for their “smaller” devices from iPhones to AirPods. These chips that let them achieve increasingly wild performance at minimum cost to battery: two things that until then were mutually exclusive, like if Big Macs suddenly helped with weight loss.
Suddenly the baseline MacBook Air—I’m writing this on one—was punching well above its weight: I could take one to work, use it all day (including some video editing), then watch a show on the train home before bothering to charge it. Unsurprisingly, it caused considerable excitement in tech circles.
At least for a while.
The reviewer I mentioned earlier observed it was all starting to feel normal. The intial wow-factor was wearing off and it felt like just another computer. I could relate.
Such is the fate, and the danger, of pleasant experiences. They end up feeling inevitable. What once filled us with amazement quickly becomes an annoyance when any part of it it happens less ideally than we expect. What felt like a gift gets taken for granted. But what we’re really—and unwittingly—taking for granted is our own selves.
That’s because appreciation is much more than about gratitude. It’s about attention, about what takes up our field of vision, physically and mentally.
And it turns out what helps us survive doesn’t help us thrive.
You see, nothing competes more powerfully for our attention than matters of survival. Imagine, as you read these words, that you suddenly perceived what smelt very much like smoke. I don’t imagine you’d be reading this sentence: you would have likely got up to investigate if your house was on fire. And you’d be wise to do so, because that could well be a matter of life and death and nothing I’m saying right now even compares. Another example we’ve all faced is when you’re talking with a friend while driving and then abruptly find yourself in a precarious situation, like someone driving like a bat out of hell: your conversation comes to an instant halt.
In both examples the impending danger takes up the entirety of attention. Nothing else would stand a chance of competing until you were confident nothing was in immediate jeopardy. And that’s as it should be. But it doesn’t stop there: those moments are also more likely to be burned into your memory—and more so when, as is often the case, they’re emotional. The peril is past but your mind is very much interested in recognising if even its semblance reappeared. That’s the role of the part of your brain called your limbic system—sometimes called the lizard brain because of how focused it is on sheer survival.
But if you want to more than just survive, you’re going to need more than your limbic brain.
That’s where practising appreciation comes in.
This is more than about positive vibes and attracting energy and all that. It’s about retraining our habits of attention to help us thrive, not just survive. It means taking the time and making the effort to notice what’s going well and what we’re happy about and delighting in that.
That in turn has a real impact on our quality of life. Yes, we’ll have our share of unpleasant things and we’ll notice them, and yes, we’ll certainly recall them. And that’s okay, it’s part of being human and in moments when survival is at stake, we do need to focus. But being human is also more than just surviving, and practising appreciation is how we get to ddefine what defines us, what fills our vision, what occupies our attention.
It’s paradoxical, but thriving sometimes requires us to let go of surviving.