In Love and War

Rethinking the way we treat ourselves.

Why It's Okay to Take Things for Granted (Sometimes)

Taking life for granted once in awhile may not be such a bad thing.

Most of the time, we take life for granted. We don't stop to consider what a miracle it is that we were even born in the first place, or recognize that each moment could be our last. Taken to an extreme, this mindset can lead us to behave in careless ways, to mistreat the people we care about, and to fail to say or do what is really in our hearts. But taking life—and all the good things in life—for granted once in awhile isn't necessarily something we should feel bad about. It may even be essential to our mental health.

Taking something for granted is typically defined as assuming, without question, that you will not lose it, or at least not lose it anytime soon. It means feeling a sense of security and permanence about something that is not, in reality, secure or permanent. In other words, it's an illusion, but possibily a necessary one.

Research on adult attachment styles, for example, shows that people who feel secure in their relationships and don't worry about losing their partners tend to have healthier, happier relationships and fewer psychological problems. In contrast, people who are more acutely aware of the possibility of losing their partners tend to suffer psychologically and romantically. Less secure people may actually be more in touch with reality--when it comes to fidelity and relationship longevity, the odds are not really in our favor. But being in touch with reality isn't necessarily what makes us happier. Research suggests that people who have more accurate views of the world and themselves are more likely to be depressed than those who wear rose-colored glasses. Positive illusions have been shown in countless studies to promote well-being and help people cope with stressful events. Theater critic Brooks Atkinson summed it up well in this quote, cited by researchers Taylor and Armor (1996): "Life is seldom as unendurable as, to judge from the facts, it ought to be." 

In relationships, occasionally reminding ourselves of "the facts" is not without its benefits. It can help us appreciate how precious our time with our partner is, and it can protect us from being blindsided if a relationship doesn't work out. But too much of it may also prevent us from experiencing the simple, almost childlike pleasure of feeling like a good moment will never end, whether it takes place on a lazy Sunday afternoon or while traveling the world together. It may seem a little naive, but believing it can make it true, at least in our minds: research shows that when we're fully present in the moment, our perception of time slows down. 

In addition to taking our partners for granted, we often take life itself for granted. Try as we might to come to terms with it, the inevitability of our own or our loved ones' death can be unbearably painful to consider, and we often try at all costs to avoid it, even if its staring us in the face. Though this avoidance might feel weak and shameful, it's also understandable. According to Terror Management Theory, awareness of mortality is so threatening to us that when reminded of it we will go to great lengths to make ourselves feel invulnerable, literally or symbolically, even to the point of doing things that increase our risk of death. One study found, for example, that smokers whose self-esteem was linked to their smoking behavior paradoxically showed more positive attitudes toward smoking after exposure to mortality-salient anti-smoking warnings.

Hyperawareness of death can backfire, despite our best intentions, and it can also poison the time we do have by bringing our attention away from the here and now. The knowledge that time is limited may seem to give our experiences weight and value, but sometimes it's a relief to live more lightly, when we have that luxury. Just because something feels limitless doesn't mean we need to value it less. 

Of course, there are many times in life when taking things for granted isn't possible, when the cold, hard facts keep rearing their ugly head. This mindset isn't really something we can manufacture. But when we find ourselves in it, we may as well enjoy it while we can, provided that it makes us feel more connected and happy rather than less. Taking things for granted gets a bad rap because we think of it as the opposite of gratitude, but it doesn't have to be. Those moments when we feel like we could live forever often become the ones we're most grateful for. 

Juliana Breines, Ph.D. is a postdoctoral fellow at Brandeis University.

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