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On Surviving a Car Crash

Why appreciation is so important for our well-being.

Yesterday I had a car crash, which I was lucky to survive. I was driving in the middle lane of a motorway (or highway), when a truck pulled out from the inside lane, without seeing us, and hit the side of our car, putting it into a spin, then hitting us again. While the car was spinning round, I thought my wife and I were definitely going to die, or be seriously injured – it was a busy stretch of the motorway, and it seemed inevitable that other cars would hit us. We span around for a few seconds, and I could see cars coming towards us. Then suddenly I had some control of the car again. I pushed the steering wheel to the left, into the hard shoulder and the crash barrier. I looked over at my wife and then looked down at my own body and was absolutely amazed that neither of us had been hurt. ‘It’s okay! We haven’t been injured!’ I shouted to her.

Today I feel in a heightened state of appreciation. I'm normally a positive and appreciative person in any case, but today I feel especially fortunate to be healthy and alive. There seems to be an enhanced freshness and ‘is-ness’ to everything I see.

As a result, I’ve returned to thinking about appreciation, and how it can transform our lives. Positive psychologists have found that a sense of gratitude has a more powerful impact on well-being than any other characteristic. Tests of different personality traits linked to happiness (such as openness, agreeableness or extraversion) have repeatedly found that gratitude is more strongly associated with happiness than any other trait.

It seems obvious that appreciation should bring happiness, in the same way that it seems obvious that being pessimistic should create unhappiness. But it’s worth thinking for a moment about the reasons why appreciation has such a positive effect.

A number of different reasons have been suggested by positive psychologists. One is that gratitude increases our enjoyment of things. When we feel grateful for things, we relish them more. If you feel grateful for your spouse or family, for example, you will enjoy their company more. If a friend treats you to a meal, you feel grateful and so enjoy it more than if you had just bought it yourself.

Another suggestion is that gratitude enhances social relationships. Grateful people tend to have good relationships. Their positivity and responsiveness makes them likeable, so they attract friends easily. They tend to be altruistic, and their appreciative attitude promotes trust, so that other people form bonds with them easily.

In addition, gratitude supports “adaptive coping.” When bad things happen in their lives, grateful people adjust better. They find it easier to make sense of negative events and tend to let go of negative memories, rather than dwelling on them. As a result, it’s not surprising that research has found that, following traumatic experiences, gratitude-oriented people experience fewer post-traumatic symptoms.

I would like to add three ideas of my own to this summary. Firstly, appreciation brings a decrease in desire. It means that we become more satisfied with our present situation. There is no sense of lack, and no desire to add anything to ourselves or our lives. We become liberated from the craving for more possessions, wealth, love or success, and from the restless striving to gain these. Craving gives rise to unpleasant emotional states such as envy and bitterness. Envy comes from comparing ourselves to others, and feeling that they are better off than us, that we lack something that they have. Bitterness can come from comparing our present situation to our past, feeling that we were better off then, or that a particular event or person is responsible for our discontent. But if we become satisfied with what we have, and with our present situation, we become free of envy and bitterness.

Appreciation can also give us a wider sense of perspective, which makes our own concerns and difficulties seem less significant. When you compare yourself to other people in the world who are living in dreadful circumstances (or other people in history who lived in dreadful circumstances) then your own “problems” seem to diminish.

And finally, appreciation is strongly related to present-ness. Appreciative people tend to live in the here and now, rather than giving their attention to the future and the past. They spend less time in states of abstraction and absorption, and more time in awareness. The relationship between appreciation and present-ness works both ways: the more appreciative we are the more present we are; and the more present we are, the more appreciative we become. Being present – living in the here and now – is also a powerful source of well-being.

Grateful people are happy people. Ungrateful people are unhappy people. And people can be made happier by practicing gratitude or appreciation. Cultivating appreciation can therefore be seen as a form of therapy – Appreciation Therapy, or Gratitude Therapy, as it might be called – which could be used to alleviate depression, or to improve general life-satisfaction.

In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy my own heightened sense of appreciation. Often appreciation fades away, but I also think that an ‘attitude of gratitude’ can become ingrained, so that we feel a constant sense of appreciation. I think this attitude has become automatic to me to some degree, and hopefully my experience of surviving the car crash will deepen and expand it.

Steve Taylor, Ph.D. is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University, UK. He is the author of Back to Sanity.

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