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Appreciate What Happens, as a Rule

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One time my friend came over with a candy thermometer and we made homemade fudge. I remember eating a lot of it.

At one point my friend was telling me an anecdote, and while I was listening I was absentmindedly devouring a wallet-sized slab of fudge.

“Whoa, slow down!” she said. “You’re eating it like a sandwich!”

This happens to me with sweets sometimes. Some deep, primordial impulse is driving me to physically incorporate the food substance into my body as efficiently as possible, like an ancient jellyfish subsuming a paralyzed sardine.

This impulse conflicts with a more complex, more human capability, which is to consciously appreciate the experience of eating the thing. Why did we bother to make fudge anyway, rather than just eat handfuls of sugar right out of the bag? Well, because humans have this ability, should we choose to exercise it, to appreciate the experiences we have, rather than just seek things in accordance to instinct and habit. It might be one of the best things about us.

A locus of inner conflict

I can put on my housecoat just to get it onto my body, or I can appreciate the experience of putting it on — the weight of the material, the fleecy hem brushing against my calves, or whatever else about it presents itself to my sensibilities.

We all have this capacity, although it doesn’t usually happen automatically. Appreciating an experience intentionally takes a miniscule but non-zero amount of effort. It’s nearly always worthwhile, because it makes life fulfilling and largely okay as it is. It keeps your attention on what life is, rather than on mental mirages of what could be, should be, might be.

The fulfillment-increasing power of conscious appreciation is quite obvious when it comes to eating something delicious. Making a point of appreciating a piece of pie, or a steak, rather than violently scarfing it like one of your primordial-sea-dwelling ancestors, increases the fulfillment derived from it by an order of magnitude, or two. If you doubt this, try eating a steak as fast as you can, and watch the nearby humans lecture you on exactly this point.

Eats steak as fast as he can

To be clear, by “appreciate” I don’t mean “enjoy” exactly, although you might also enjoy the experience. I mean “recognizing the unique or worthy qualities” of the experience itself: the texture of it, the aesthetics of it, the heft of it, the heat of it, the poetry of it, the poignancy of it — whatever strikes your sensibilities when you pay attention to what’s happening.

I also don’t mean thinking about the experience. You appreciate something by feeling it, sensing it, tasting it, investigating it on an experiential level. You don’t have to think at all. Appreciating and thinking are like listening and talking; they generally don’t happen at the same time.

Appreciating an experience is fulfilling and life-affirming even if it isn’t the most preferable experience. A boxer might appreciate the strength and grace of his opponent; that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t prefer a weaker and clumsier one. You can appreciate the weight of the grocery bags you’re carrying from your car, the whiff of coming rain in the air, or the burn in your legs after climbing two flights of stairs, even if you don’t precisely enjoy those experiences. When you’re appreciating something, even something challenging, you really know you’re living.

Tireless supporters

Pleasant experiences are easiest to appreciate, of course. You can quite easily appreciate the experience of eating cubes of fudge, putting on a shirt right out of the dryer, or settling yourself into bed, if you think to do so. It’s still a voluntary act, though — if you don’t make a point of it, you might not appreciate even those things.

Once you see the magic of intentional appreciation, you can apply it to increasingly mundane and subtle experiences. You can appreciate the hardness of the floor you’re walking on, or the way your socks are hugging your feet right now, the way that leaf landed just like that, or the cinematic effect a distant church bell has on the moment. You can appreciate the sheer volume of cabbages in the bin at the supermarket, the cavernousness of the train station, or the dependable calmness of Russ the product manager. It’s all a matter of noticing that these qualities exist, in everything all the time, and that they have their own unique signature.

Dependably calm

Without practicing active appreciation, you’re resigning yourself to passive appreciation, which makes it a much rarer thing. Exceptionally pleasant experiences do happen, and they often demand your appreciation: you’re moved by a blazing sunset, an exceptionally good waiter, or the arrival of a friend you love to bits.

But then you’re appreciating only the exceptional and favorable. You could be appreciating much of the other 99% of life too. Appreciating what happens as a general, ongoing practice, makes life much richer and more meaningful in a way that’s hard to express.

Why the appreciation habit makes such a difference becomes more obvious when you consider the alternative. If you’re not noticing the qualities of what’s currently happening, where is your attention? Invariably it’s on your idle thinking — an endless, reflexive mental mapping of hypothetical events, which most adults are nearly constantly preoccupied by.

Idle thinking always feels important, but it’s generally fruitless, repetitive, and unresolvable. It’s what the mind does when you don’t give it another job, like noticing what’s unfolding before you. It’s such a relief when you just drop the thinking in mid-blather, turn to what’s actually happening, and let yourself feel what’s impressive or notable about it.

Rare instance when you have no choice

Once you really get what I’m talking about, and you can genuinely appreciate the thunk of a car door closing, the stretch you feel when reaching a high shelf, or the solidity of a concrete stairwell, ordinary life feels like an endlessly interesting playground, or museum, or alien civilization, or something between the three.

Does appreciating upholstery and cabbage bins and Russ the product manager sound boring? That’s because you’re thinking about it, not doing it, and your thoughts are boring. Thoughts are tedious rehearsals of what’s not happening; appreciation is the real thing, real life, ever-new and inexhaustible.

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Photos by Freepik, Kari Shea, Daniel Jolivet, and Taylor Heery

{ 43 Comments }

Matthew December 30, 2023 at 11:17 pm

Appreciation. Forgiveness.

I’ve been reading your blog for close to 10 years now. The Shadow side of all this is toxic positivity. The kind of positivity, appreciation and gratitude that makes negative emotions like anger, overwhelm, hurt and resentment seem like problems that should be shuffled away and send to therapy and meditation retreats. Meanwhile, the mental health crisis is ever growing along with dissociation disorders – splitting the soul and awareness in order to do what one should.

I actually now have a policy: I don’t listen to advice about appreciation and gratitude unless it’s from someone obviously comfortable with their own anger and hurt who can be in connection with others while having those emotions. Because the shadow of those energies are ruling our society now.

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David Cain December 31, 2023 at 8:19 am

Hmm. Perhaps I should have spent more time explaining what I mean by appreciation in this context, because it has nothing to do with gratitude or positivity/negativity. I’m referring entirely to whether your attention is on the actual experiential qualities of what is happening right now, or whether it’s on some abstract layer of thought about how the world is and so on. Abstractions like the mental health crisis have nothing to do with whether you appreciate direct experience as it unfolds. Categorization, evaluation, abstraction — all of them are products of thought.

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Ani Castillo December 31, 2023 at 12:19 pm

To be honest it is during the hard times that appreciation is more helpful (I think)

I’ve had moments when I feel sad and out of sorts and angry.

Through therapy you learn to appreciate those challenging feelings too!

They’re part of the human array of emotions. And they mobilize us or slow us down. Whatever is needed at that time.

Also, many many many times, when we’re feeling challenging feelings, they actually come from negative THOUGHTS.

So it’s super helpful to find out if what we’re thinking is what’s causing the challenging thoughts. Or if there is something challenging happening at the moment.

Those are two very different things!

I think this appreciation is another way to be awake and aware of what’s happening inside and outside of us.

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AsIseeIt December 31, 2023 at 2:15 pm

Hi Matthew,
As you’ll see from David’s response to your comment, he is not talking about your point here. (Though it has validity for another essay). It was clear to me that his intention, I think, was to separate the two concepts of enjoyment from just noticing whatever the feeling is. Noticing equals appreciating. I’ve been doing a lot of this lately. To me it is mindfulness and being present with whatever is. Not ignoring or pathologizing unpleasantness. And to David, thank you once again for bringing our attention back to what it is to be human.

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Nicholas Estberg January 1, 2024 at 4:01 pm

Matthew, I hear you, and I understand. I am a person who struggles with my anger at times. I agree that these very real and necessary emotions are being shunted to the side and ignored, which is the absolute wrong thing to do.

Ironically, often my anger is not due to the present moment, but fueled by some past trauma I have not tried to deal with or re-examine.

One way to defuse my anger is to be present. To focus on something specific in the ‘now’ which helps me have the time to get through the emotion.

Being present by focusing on something now (appreciating it’s real physical properties) is part of what David is talking about

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Jessica January 3, 2024 at 11:45 am

great point. Toxic positivity is every bit, if not more so, harmful as negativity.

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Angie the Freak December 31, 2023 at 7:26 am

Societal and financial abuses on a global scale make it damned difficult to shake hands with anger and move through it. especially when activism can get the agents of change murdered. Gray rock dissociative awareness and suppression of anger are neither unhealthy or toxic positivity if the practice keeps one out of the carceral systems and/or the cemeteries.

The disappearing snack brought a smile to my face. A neighbor offered me chocolates from his pavement-sized Whitmans box along with his excellent conversation. Same result, dude. He is gone Beyond and I’m still apologizing.

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David Cain December 31, 2023 at 8:26 am

I don’t understand this take. I didn’t say anything about positivity or the suppression of anger.

Appreciation in this context is entirely about your relationship to direct moment-to-moment sensory experience. It has nothing to do with abstractions like the carceral system or activism or anything like that. Maybe you mean something else?

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Rocky December 31, 2023 at 7:49 am

My life gets very interesting when I pay attention. I find I really do learn something new every day.
The front end quote from one of your books was a musical game changer for me:
“There is no good singing,
There is only present and absent.”

You must include this piece in your highlight reel!
Many thanks David

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David Cain December 31, 2023 at 8:28 am

It seems to me like the world itself is always fresh and interesting, and our thoughts about it are the only things that are repetitive or boring. Nothing ever repeats itself except thought, because it reduces everything to concepts and “kinds.”

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Tara December 31, 2023 at 2:30 pm

Hear hear. I agree totally.

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LookUp December 31, 2023 at 8:20 am

It has been my thinking that all anger comes from a single source: you didn’t get what you wanted.
And sometimes, we throw temper tantrums no different than a child in the toy aisle demanding a purchase that mom says she has no extra money for.
I have learned not to take responsibility for another person’s anger nor to become affronted anymore. There is plenty of reasons people can momentarily lose their cool that are forgivable…the driver who cut you off in traffic is late for work and is going to lose their job. The guy screaming at a bank clerk? His wife just asked him for a divorce. You can imagine far more scenarios to forgive another’s behavior than they “singled you out just to be nasty to you” answer in your head. Practice makes perfect. And after awhile, you don’t react to anger at much of anything anymore.
I’ve learned to not take responsibility

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DL December 31, 2023 at 8:29 am

I feel like this topic is among the most important you discuss on your blog, and I really appreciate every reminder. Each of your expositions about attending to the moment rather than being caught up in endless rumination have a different perspective, and they all help to drive the point into our stubborn minds.

All of us need this reminder. I’ve been meditating for years, and still find myself in these ruts of dayslong rumination at times. Recognizing this and finally attending to the moments again sometimes feels as dramatic as the first deep breath after you’ve been underwater.

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David Cain December 31, 2023 at 8:46 am

The strange thing is that we are always in the moment, even while thinking. Thoughts are just another kind of present-moment experience, but it seems like thoughts are showing us something real that is happening elsewhere in time. Ultimately we have to learn to see thought for what it is, which is a sort of wispy, present-moment hallucination that conveys experiences we are not actually having. Working with thought directly in meditation can help you start to see thought as thought, and not get taken for a rise so easily.

Reminders to “return to the present” and “notice what’s happening” are good advice but they come to seem like nagging and probably aren’t effective in the long run. Appreciation is a different way in, because it emphasizes how much more interesting direct experience is than thinking.

I found this video really useful, regarding being caught up in thinking: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Om2jBeDlnLM

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Alex F December 31, 2023 at 8:40 am

Nabokov mentions somewhere the “square echo” of a car door closing.

Saul Bellow, in one of his letters I think: “Unexpected intrusions of beauty – that’s what life is.” Your post was not about that – you’re saying attention must be directed and something doesn’t have to be beautiful for us to appreciate it. But it made me think of that quote.

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David Cain December 31, 2023 at 8:52 am

Nabokov gets it! Saul Bellow too.

I think ultimately there is a sort of beauty even in things that aren’t beautiful in the conventional sense, if the experience itself is disentangled from evaluation and thought. There is beauty in a rotting loaf of bread, in a painful sunburn, in tragedy and all of that. But think appreciation is a better pointer because the word beauty is too strongly associated with pleasure and harmony and other unchallenging qualities that aren’t found in everything.

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Karen McFarland January 17, 2024 at 10:51 am

Enjoyed these perspectives.
Will pay special attention to
everything this day.

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Ginzo December 31, 2023 at 9:12 am

Appreciation of the here and now takes one back to the basic act of living. To be alive is enough. In fact, its way more than enough.

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David Cain December 31, 2023 at 1:30 pm

And it kind of has to be enough, because it’s all there is. Humans have this tendency to project ourselves outside of what is actually happening, when in fact, what’s actually happening is all there is, and it has always been that way.

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Gloria W. December 31, 2023 at 9:23 am

I take the time to buy the best quality food, and great care to prepare meals. Then I scarf it down mindlessly, barely tasting it.
A recent assignment asked me to recall the best and worst days of this year, and I came up blank. Have I sleep-walked through another year? Was I with me at the time?
Do you think that being a writer allows (or compels) you to soak up more of your experience, to write about it later?

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Ashley Kung December 31, 2023 at 9:24 am

Yes, to all of this. Meditation and using the “noting” method as a way to train in mindfulness has helped me learn to “appreciate”, to use your word, ALL types of experience. Not just the pleasant things. Everything, watching it come and go, by itself, ever-changing and anew. Going *into* sensate experience is very VERY different from thinking about it. And even thoughts can be simply a sensate experience – hearing sounds or seeing images in the mind, remembering or imagining.

May I ask, do you have a specific type of meditation practice or method you use (I know you do mindfulness meditation but just wondering if there is a specific method or technique you use to support mindfulness)? Just curious.

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Martha December 31, 2023 at 11:00 am

Ashley, next time David offers a Camp Calm class sign you for it if you can. Best meditation class ever, time and money well spent.
(No affiliation, just a satisfied customer ).

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Ashley Kung December 31, 2023 at 12:08 pm

Thank you! I think I probably will check it out, thanks for the reminder!

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David Cain December 31, 2023 at 1:38 pm

I do many kinds of meditation practice, but particularly recommend Shinzen Young’s noting method, which he calls See Hear Feel. (If you google that you will find videos and other resources.)

Thoughts are a sense experience just like any other — the complicating factor is that thoughts depict sense experiences that are not happening. We evolved this ability to remember where to find food and other things, but it creates a delusion that it is possible to be elsewhere than exactly where we are. We can retrain ourselves to recognize that thoughts are just another present-moment experience, but the first step is to let go of the fixation on thought by attending to non-thought experience (seeing, hearing, feeling, etc.)

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Charisse December 31, 2023 at 10:35 am

This is such a good reminder. I laughed so hard at the fudge anecdote. That is me with sugar too. I feel like there are times where I can be completely present for all things and times or I am utterly sleepwalking and have no idea what happened during the course of the day. This is a good reminder to slow it down and pay attention.

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Kim Smith December 31, 2023 at 11:07 am

David, this post encapsulates what I’m trying to do as I prepare a program for my local Wild Ones chapter (native plants). My program will be about noticing and appreciating the mostly-unseen insects in our native gardens. I’m trying to teach people a new way to connect with nature in their home ecosystems by showing them the beauty and diversity of pollinating insects. Thanks.

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David Cain December 31, 2023 at 4:07 pm

One thing I notice whenever I go on retreat is that every square foot of nature is absolutely filled with life and activity. You can zoom on virtually any little patch of ground and see insects and other life forms doing their thing.

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Beth December 31, 2023 at 12:38 pm

Thank you for another great article and the reminder of how dull and repetitive thoughts can be compared to the ever changing immediacy of moment to moment experience. Happy new year to you

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Anne December 31, 2023 at 12:42 pm

Thank you for this wonderful reminder; I tend to appreciate more when I’m out on a walk and forget to “appreciate” the many many mundane events that fill the day too — nothing needs to be mundane!

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Sarah Plumb December 31, 2023 at 1:41 pm

Hi David, this post reminded me of when I was reading some Timothy Findlay books for a high school Can Lit project, many years ago. In one of the books, there was a passage describing the feeling of slipping a sundress on and the particular feeling of it falling over your hips. I never thought about that experience before reading that but knew exactly what he was talking about. I immediately thought, there’s a man who has definitely put on (and appreciated the experience of putting on) a sundress!

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David Cain December 31, 2023 at 4:10 pm

I have never worn a sundress but putting on bascially any article of clothing is an experience worthy of attention. It’s winter here so there’s a whole series of rituals necessary for going outside (coat, scarf, hat, gloves, but I do enjoy them all.

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Jane December 31, 2023 at 2:12 pm

“Thoughts are tedious rehearsals of what’s not happening; appreciation is the real thing, real life, ever-new and inexhaustible.” What a wonderful reminder for someone who is a semi-professional ruminator.

“Practice Active Appreciation” is now taped to my mirror.

Thank you!

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Chris Benson December 31, 2023 at 2:13 pm

Thank you for reminding me to practice mindfulness. Our world is so much richer and more enjoyable when we just pay attention.

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Leslie L Totten December 31, 2023 at 3:36 pm

There’s a good little book I bought ten years ago called 14,000 things to be happy about by Barbara Ann Kipfer. It is filled with these types of moments you share that often go unnoticed. I have made it a habit to read one page each day and note something from my own experience that brought me joy. I relish the consistent review and your post reminded me of the beauty of this practice. Thank you for your thoughtful notes!

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Jennie Godwin December 31, 2023 at 7:03 pm

“Thoughts are tedious rehearsals of what is not happening” is such a clear signpost to
finding the best and most helpful direction to travel.
That one’s going on the wall. Thank you David.

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David A January 7, 2024 at 5:19 am

I came here to comment something very similar! I’m guilty of often forgetting the enormous difference between thinking about something and experiencing it.

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Robert Carter December 31, 2023 at 9:53 pm

Whaty you are talking about here is simply Awe ? If you see something that makes you appreciative at that moment you can be ib Awe of it???

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Nate January 1, 2024 at 10:04 am

turns out I actually love this

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Linda January 1, 2024 at 11:26 am

Thank you for the reminder to be aware. Somewhere I remember reading a quote saying that life is composed of nothing but moments. We typically make note of the big moments but not the routine, common, or simple experiences of life. The feel of soap on your hands and the ridges in the towel as you dry off. The change in floor surface as you go through a doorway. Every day I try to bring more awareness to my life but there is always room for me to do more noticing and far less ruminating. Wishing you all the best in 2024.

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Sam January 1, 2024 at 12:38 pm

I knew I was doing something right when a bout of mindfulness allowed me to appreciate the stirring of a coffee cup. The mental absenteeism that causes things like to former to be a chore is something we deal with a lot because of our stressful lifestyles. I’m glad that others see that it doesn’t have to be this way! Another great article, have a good year

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Sharon Hanna January 1, 2024 at 7:14 pm

Thank you, David. xoxo

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Jessica Marshall January 2, 2024 at 3:26 pm

Such a thoughtful and timely essay, and much needed after the craziness of the Holidays. Thanks immensely for this.

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Jean Ann January 2, 2024 at 9:27 pm

Wonderful, David! You can put into words these nebulous things/feelings/thoughts/non-thoughts that help me steer through the mayhem, the boredom, the overwhelm and the over-thinking. Bravo

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