- We often only fully appreciate what we have after it’s gone.
- Our brain is ruled by the Weber-Fechner laws, which notice change.
- There is a way to use the Weber-Fechner laws to appreciate life more fully, using the power of our imagination.
Why do we often only appreciate what we have after it’s gone? Why can’t we appreciate what we have while we still have it? Is there a recipe to do so?
When I was married to my late husband, Steve, we had a very busy life, me with my private medical practice, he with his stressful work as a systems engineer. We knew we were happy but we didn’t really take the time to savor our happiness. We were planning to live into our nineties and knew we would have all the time then to appreciate life and to go for walks holding hands.
But then, all of a sudden, our life as we knew it collapsed. Steve started experiencing right-hand weakness which got rapidly worse. An MRI revealed a very aggressive brain tumor, called "glioblastoma multiforme," which carried with it a deadly prognosis. Things evolved quickly with brain surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. Suddenly, there was no more time to appreciate our love, our life, our happiness. One day, we had it all. The following day, what we had was gone.
Many nights I woke up thinking and wishing it was only a nightmare and that in the morning we would be back to our normal life. I promised myself that we would appreciate and savor our life from then on.
But it wasn’t a nightmare. It was reality, a horrible reality. I would have given so much to be able to rewind and get back to our life before the dreadful diagnosis. Steve passed away 17 months later. We would have taken more time to appreciate our life then, knowing what was ahead of us.
But things don’t work this way. We often don’t fully appreciate what we have until we lose it, and then it’s too late.
Why can’t we fully appreciate what we have when we have it? Because our brain is ruled by the Weber-Fechner laws, which explain how we perceive change. When there is no change, our brain doesn’t pay attention to, and is sometimes not even aware of, what we have. But when there is a stimulus, our brain perceives the intensity of change proportionate to the intensity of the pre-existing stimulus.
To make it easier to understand, let’s take an example with money: If two people (one who makes $5,000 a year and one who makes $1 million a year) receive $10,000, the person who makes $5,000 a year will perceive the $10,000 as being huge, whereas the person who makes $1 million a year will perceive the $10,000 as being just peanuts.
So, the brain pays attention to how big the change is. The bigger the change, the more attention the brain gives it.
Is there a way to use the Weber-Fechner laws to our advantage to appreciate life better?
Yes, there is: Let’s use the power of our imagination.
Studies by Reddan and colleagues from the University of Colorado-Boulder’s department of psychology and neuroscience compared the effect of deliberate imagination and reality on the brain and found that deliberate imagination was equally effective on several parts of the brain as compared to reality.
So, what can that mean in practice? Let’s sit down, close our eyes, and imagine we are stepping into a time machine. Then, let's propel ourselves far away in the future: We are now 100 years old, alone in a nursing home. We are cared for by total strangers because all our loved ones are gone. We have trouble seeing and hearing. Our back, knees, and hips hurt when we take a few steps, and we are dizzy all the time, with loss of balance. Our hands shake when we grab a fork. We suffer from urinary incontinence and can’t sleep well anymore. Let’s take a few more minutes to imagine this.
Then, let’s take a few deep breaths and step back into our time machine to rewind and get back to today. A few more deep breaths and let’s open our eyes and appreciate how well we see, how well we can hear.
Let’s stretch our fingers, arms, legs, feet, and back, and be mindful of how well our body moves. Let’s get up and appreciate our balance. Let’s take a few steps and be mindful of how well we can walk. Let’s reflect on how many loved ones are around us. Let’s text or call people we love to tell them how much they mean to us and how lucky and thankful we are to have them in our lives. Let’s hug our partner and fully appreciate that embrace.
Our imagination has created a reversible time machine with differences that can be measured by our brain so that we don’t have to wait until what we have is irreversibly gone to appreciate how precious what we have is.
And that’s how we can, on a regular basis, appreciate what we have before it disappears. It's how we can experience deep happiness—not yesterday, not tomorrow—today.
Copyright 2022 @Chris Gilbert, MD, PhD