Just about anyone would agree that taking time to appreciate the simple things is an important part of a happy life. But we may not be hardwired to pay attention in this way.
Evolutionary psychology tells us that it’s easier for us to notice a perceived problem than it is for us to take in what’s going well. This proclivity, referred to as the negativity bias, can likely be explained by considering our distant ancestors. Survival-wise, they’d be better served by worrying about the footprint of a natural predator than by delighting in the fragrant daffodil growing next to it.
So how can we acknowledge our challenges without losing sight of our good fortune? Here are three simple ideas to take for a spin:
Start the day with gratitude. The moment you wake up, let yourself smile and bring to mind five things you’re grateful for. I like to keep my gratitudes simple and to fill in the blank without thinking too much about it: “I’m grateful for _____ .” I’m grateful for having enough food to eat. I’m grateful for my parents. I’m grateful for the sunshine streaming through my window. Think of at least five, take a deep breath, and continue with your day.
Be mindful of simple things. Throughout your day, find simple moments to let go of planning and deciding, and just pay attention to your present experience. The key is to tune in directly to your senses. When you walk from your desk to the kitchen, just feel your footsteps. When you’re eating lunch, take time just to taste your sandwich or to see the varied colors and textures in your salad. If you’re sitting outside, listen to the symphony all around you: the birds, the cars, the breeze. Just open to hearing for a few minutes with no other agenda. Getting in touch with the subtle richness of life can bring more happiness and freedom even to ordinary moments.
End the day with self-appreciation. When you lie down to go to sleep at night, bring to mind five things you’re happy you did that day. It’s so easy to remember what you didn’t get done or where you think you fell short. And while there’s certainly a place for honest reflection on what you’d like to change, appreciating what you did do isn’t second-nature. Once again I like to keep it simple and fill in the blank: “I’m happy that I _____ today.” I’m happy that I texted my sister today. I’m happy that I was friendly with the check-out clerk at the grocery store today. I’m happy that I meditated today. Think of at least five then let yourself drift to sleep. An unexpected benefit I noticed when beginning this practice is that remembering what I’m proud of reinforced these habits and made it more likely that I’d do them again.
Practicing conscious appreciation has the benefit of boosting happiness and giving us a bigger, more balanced picture of our reality––all without changing any material conditions in our life.