The half-full glass. Photo by Mark Weiss/Getty



How to appreciate what you have

To better face an imperfect world, try a deeper reflection on the things, people and legacies that make your life possible

The half-full glass. Photo by Mark Weiss/Getty





Edited by Matt Huston





Need to know

To appreciate what you have is to recognise the value of the people, things and world around you, as well as your own attributes – and to treat all of these with the care and consideration they deserve.

In this sense, appreciation means not just being grateful for what you have or what you’ve been given, because gratitude does not necessarily imply an attitude of care and consideration. Appreciation, as I use it here, may begin with thankfulness for what you have, but it goes beyond that to a broader understanding of how the world works and what is valuable in that. Appreciation can also lead us to a critical attitude in a way that gratitude does not, because we may recognise that the world and its inhabitants are not cared for as they should be.

It is not easy to engage in this kind of appreciation, and not only because it asks us to think in these multiple registers. Even when things are going well, you might not feel that you appreciate it all as much as you could or should. Alternatively, maybe you’re not sure that you have anything genuinely worth appreciating. There are many general reasons why appreciation can be challenging, and they stretch across psychology, culture, economics and politics.

Humans are incredibly complex creatures with competing instincts. We have neurons telling us to get what’s ours and to achieve social status, while simultaneously leading us to underestimate our gains. One explanation for this is that we evolved to go through a boom-and-bust pleasure loop. Humans don’t just have to eat or procreate once, in order to pass on their genes; we have to do it continually. So we are led to desire something, get it, and then not be satisfied by it. The famous image for this in modern psychology is the hedonic treadmill: we’re always running toward what we think will make us happier, and always ending up back where we started.

Contemporary culture often adds pressure to this dynamic. Reports suggest that many of us, and especially young people – from the United States to China, and everywhere in between – are feeling burnt out and overwhelmed by never-have-enough cultural messaging. People are told to work hard to get ahead, but many are finding themselves stifled by limited opportunity, and even those who do get ahead don’t necessarily feel any happier or more fulfilled. There are also the very real economic pressures created by winner-take-all economies and cost-of-living crises. Even people who may have once felt that they had enough have been squeezed by inflation and variable interest rates. On top of all of that is the looming danger of climate change and the creeping sense that you might not be able to survive without having power over vast resources.

If you’re like me, you might also have some political resistance to the idea of appreciation. The idea that we should ‘appreciate what we have’ can strike one as a ruling-class ideology: ‘You peasants should be grateful we feed you slop at all.’ We shouldn’t appreciate – we should have a revolution!

I understand this resistance. But over time, I have come to believe that not appreciating what I have is an even crueller way of looking at the world. It’s like a little voice in your head saying: ‘Not only do you not have enough, but you should also be miserable about it.’ I remain a diehard egalitarian who is horrified by the levels of inequality in this world. But I no longer think that refusing to appreciate what I have is going to make the world a better place, or make us as individuals any more likely to change things.

In fact, once I opened up to the idea, I realised that, for myself at least, the more appreciative I am, the more I care about the world and institutions around me, and the more I want to help them improve. And for many people, because appreciation may improve your wellbeing and increase your concern for the world around you, it could even make you more likely to engage in political activity. I write could rather than will because of the fact of our different psychological make-ups. Many people want to change things precisely because of unhappiness with the current situation, after all. So not everyone will benefit from increasing their appreciation, but everyone might as well try it out before deciding that.

This Guide is an invitation to take up that attempt. It is written from my perspective as someone who has studied various philosophical, religious and literary traditions that have something to say about appreciation. In many times and places, you can find a focus on heroism, greatness and the elite, with the accompanying belief that we should appreciate what the best among us have to offer. In other settings, there is more of a focus on the value of all of our lives, and a sense that what makes this world work is the mutual appreciation of equals. When I write about appreciating what you have, I mean it in this latter, universal sense.

Think it through

Begin where you are

To better appreciate what you have, a key task is to rethink the powerful human tendency that the philosopher Daniel Milo, in his book Good Enough (2019), calls ‘elsewhereism’. Elsewhereism is the urge to always seek a better elsewhere – whether that’s a different job, partner or continent. It’s what drives progress. But it can also lead to unhappiness. If someone is always looking for a better elsewhere, they are never appreciating the qualities of the here-and-now.

Elsewhereism is, I think, based on a specific kind of forgetfulness: that is, forgetting that even in the new, better elsewhere, there will still be problems. You will still suffer from accidents, from unrequited love, from natural disasters, from new psychological foibles that will simply emerge. That’s just part of our human condition. To better appreciate what you have isn’t to give up on an elsewhere. It’s to understand that there is no elsewhere that is beyond some degree of difficulty, and that, if you’re not appreciative of what you have now, you never will be.

The first step then is simply to begin where you are and acknowledge that parts of your psyche and the society you live in are good. No matter how bad a person’s situation is, each of us has at least some positive attributes, traits and capacities, and humans today are the inheritors of immense cultural and technological progress.

Identify what you have

In the song ‘Ain’t Got No, I Got Life’ (1968), Nina Simone sings about not having any of the things that people usually consider signs of material or personal success – not just home and money, but also love, culture and religion. Then she pauses and asks: if I don’t have any of these things, what do I still have? Well, she has her body, and her life, and her freedom. Not bad.

This song also shows us that we have something else: a rich tradition of people appreciating what they have in spite of what they lack, or what has been taken away from them. Perhaps the best place to start appreciating specific things that you have is to go through exactly the process that Simone does: first, allow yourself to lament the things that you lack in your life. (It’s worth remembering that the ability to grieve and mourn is, after all, something that you do have.) You can even make a list of all that is lacking. Acknowledging imperfection is an important part of appreciating what you have.

Then, follow this right up with a list of everything you do have. You might start in the same place that Simone does – listing your body parts, life, whatever freedom you have – but don’t stop there. Keep thinking through what you have. Even Simone skips over quite a bit in this song: not only her own musical talent, but also the very existence of music. A person has much more than they personally possess.

So as not to get overwhelmed, move out in concentric circles. Start with your body and all that works well in it. And then move on to your attributes, talents and skills. Then you can consider material possessions. You need not list everything, but maybe write down some highlights, some objects that are especially important to you, even if it’s just the shirt on your back. Consider next any relationships you have and other people you have in your life. You could do this not only with friends or family, but also acquaintances, as well as the people you (depending on your own job or life) may never see who help the world around you keep moving (eg, sanitation workers, fruit and vegetable pickers, dockworkers, and on and on).

Then keep moving further outward. Consider the social, political, cultural or religious traditions you’ve inherited. These can include so many things: values such as freedom and equality, beliefs in human interdependence and the sacredness of life, art forms such as music or fiction, practical institutions like fire departments and hospitals, and all the public infrastructure around you. Maybe you’re even reading this at a public library. And just think of all the roads and sidewalks you have access to. If, like me, you are concerned about the inequalities in material possessions and social status in the world, you might pause to remember that you have social movements and political power that can help to transform these unfair conditions (as difficult and frustrating as the process may be).

Finally, move out once more into the natural world and all that the plants and animals and cycles of nature provide. You could think about the microorganisms in your stomach that make digestion possible, the electricity coursing through your brain to make thinking possible, the evolutionary inheritance that has given humans opposable thumbs and an upright posture. You don’t even have to stop there: don’t forget that you live in a vast cosmos whose history of explosions and condensations made life itself possible.

Reflect on what you have

Once you have your list, you can begin to reflect on different aspects of it. One useful exercise is to write some brief notes or journal entries about something on your list (say, a value that you’ve inherited, or a self-taught skill, or a person you value), which can help you to explore and expand for yourself why you appreciate that thing or person. This might also help make the significance of relatively abstract things feel more concrete. If you’re more of a talker than a writer, you could do this exercise by discussing it with a friend or family member.

This process of listing, followed up by writing or conversing, is something that you can do once or periodically. You could begin to integrate it into your regular activities as well, taking time to list and reflect on why you appreciate additional things that you might not have really noticed before.

Comparing levels of appreciation can be useful, too. You might ask yourself before a purchase, for example, if you would more greatly appreciate having a particular object, or instead giving the money to a cause or a friend in need. In this way, you can better understand that appreciating what you have is only on one level about material goods, and that who you are as a person is bound up with many circles of appreciation.

On that point, I need to pause and address the elephant in the room of appreciation: what if you don’t have the basic possessions you need – enough food, shelter, clothing, medicine? And what if you are socially isolated and lack the relationships you also need? These are the kinds of questions that always led me to think appreciation was a problematic concept. And, again, I still think it can be if it doesn’t consider the whole range of human situations. It is strange to write about appreciating what ‘you’ have when you might be someone who truly does not have enough.

However, I’ve also learned from conversations I’ve had with people in such difficult situations over the years that this can be a condescending way to think about appreciation. People lacking basic goods can still have plenty to appreciate, from successes they’ve had in keeping themselves healthy and positive, to the community of others with whom they share limited resources, to the kindnesses of strangers who stop to talk with them.

None of that ends the absurdity of a wealthy world full of impoverished people, or a thickly populated world full of lonely people. Appreciating what you do have does not mean ignoring that too many people – perhaps even you – lack what they need. But, again, one of the goals here is to let appreciation give us the energy to try to understand and transform this situation.

Keep the deeper meaning of appreciation in sight

There is a superficial meaning of ‘appreciating what you have’, which is that, when you are at a good point in your life and have what you want, you feel thankful for your success. Appreciating what you have at such moments is certainly not meaningless – especially if it stops you from desiring more and more – but it doesn’t exactly take a how-to guide to teach someone to do it.

The deeper meaning of appreciation comes when you are able to acknowledge all that is good around you even while recognising all that is bad. This means appreciating what you have, not because you have everything that you need or want, nor because the world is how you think it should be. Rather, you do so because you have learned to appreciate the world as it is, with all that is flawed about it, without giving up hope in the possibility that you can still make it better. James Baldwin put it well when he wrote that we live between the demands of acceptance and the demands of justice, and described the seemingly contradictory task of accepting life as it is, ‘totally without rancour’, without concluding that the injustices we face are ineradicable. It is not easy to live with such competing demands. But to do so is the deeper meaning of appreciating what you have.

While there are limits to what can be appreciated, it is still important to appreciate that we have some agreement about, and some means for ending, the unnecessary ravages of things like poverty and violence, if only we can gather the political clarity and will to do so. One important part of this process is not letting appreciation fall into complacency. It is good to appreciate, for example, that humans now have longer life expectancies than in the past and that we have the technical capacity to feed everyone alive. Those are amazing accomplishments. But sometimes it’s suggested that such progress means the world’s institutions are basically good and progress is inevitable. In a world where billions of people still live in poverty, this is over-appreciation for the progress we’ve made.

The deeper meaning of appreciation cuts both ways. Just as we should appreciate things in spite of difficulty, so we should appreciate difficulty in spite of progress. It’s this balance that makes for a productive version of ‘elsewhereism’: seeking a better place, collectively, not because we fail to appreciate where we are, but because we know that the good of our time and place is still not enough.

Allow yourself to appreciate imperfection

The next step on our journey into appreciation is to understand why, no matter how appreciative you are, and no matter how much luck you might have, your life will never be perfect. There are many reasons for this, and they include obvious things like illness, natural disasters and accidents. But even if medical science and social systems advanced to the point where no one had to worry about these things anymore, and everyone’s lives were full of wonderful delights, life would still be imperfect. Even delights will lose potency. For example, what was once the best food in the world will come to taste like average food if it is average food, because it is simply all there is. More importantly, no matter how long you live or how many accidents you avoid, you can’t make someone who doesn’t love you fall in love with you, and you can’t make your parents or siblings or friends pay more attention to you, or go places or do things with you if they’re not interested. (At the very least, you’ll have to compromise and participate in something that bores or disinterests you.)

These basic facts underscore what philosophers have been telling us for centuries. Siddhartha Gautama made the point more than 2,500 years ago that even pleasure is suffering. Why? Because we know that it will end. A couple of centuries later, Aristotle pointed out that part of what makes something pleasurable is that it activates the fullness of the mind. But it does this only in the beginning. Once it becomes routine, it loses its power. The Stoics built their whole philosophy out of a recognition of life’s imperfections and instructions for how to live well through these difficulties.

While this may all seem like a millennia-long indictment of the possibility of appreciating life, I think that quite the opposite is true. As frustrating as imperfection might be, even the fact of its existence is something that we can come to appreciate.

The contemporary philosopher Ruth Chang makes an excellent point about this in ‘Hard Choices’ (2017), where she argues that not all choices are between things that are better or worse than each other. Some choices, she says, are ‘on a par’, meaning that each is better and worse in different ways. If you are deciding between two universities to attend, for example, you might find that one is better socially while the other is better academically, and there is no way to compare the two. This situation is a good thing if you know what to do with it, Chang says. When you find yourself in an on-par situation, you get to step back and ask yourself what your values are. For instance: does socialising or studying matter more to you? Or is there a third college out there that has a more equal ratio of each because they both matter a lot to you? Whatever you decide, having to grapple with a hard choice should teach you something about who you are and what you value.

One example from my own life came when I had to choose between two jobs. One was a more long-term offer in a location that would have taken me away from friends and family, while the other was more precarious but allowed me to be near my community. I chose the latter because I decided that, at that moment in time, community mattered more than stability. That choice had consequences once the job ended, and I found myself unemployed for some months. At times I wondered if I had made the right choice. But by recalling that my decision was not just about the future, but also about the kind of person I wanted to be, I was able to better appreciate the time I’d spent at the job and how my connections to people I loved had grown in that time. It was through the imperfection of the options, the fact that neither was perfect, that I learned something about what mattered to me.

The benefits of imperfection go beyond this. Because even though, in a perfect world, people might never suffer, we also wouldn’t have much pleasure. Building on Gautama and Aristotle, we can see that the reverse of their point is also true: if we tire of things and they lose their pleasure, then it is also the case that a thing can be pleasurable only because it will be new and exciting (for a while). It is the eventual loss of newness that makes it possible for something else new to come along.

There are also interpersonal benefits to appreciating imperfection. Because we are all imperfect in some ways, none of us can claim much superiority over others. If you recognise your own imperfections and learn to forgive them in other people, you can be humbler, more open to others, and even help build a more democratic and equal society (if somebody were perfect, they would logically have more power than the rest of us, so it’s a good thing that no one is perfect). By appreciating our own imperfections, we come to see that others’ imperfections are not irreparable flaws, but aspects of what makes them equal and meaningful members of our communities.

It is worth keeping imperfection in mind as you continue on your path toward greater appreciation. None of us are going to follow that path perfectly, either, just by snapping our fingers and saying we will appreciate things more. It requires doing the work to take stock of what you have (and don’t have), adjusting your attitudes and frameworks, and continually using your appreciation as a resource to help you improve the world. Imperfection is not an excuse to do worse, but a reminder to be gentle with yourself as you seek to improve.

Key points – How to appreciate what you have

  1. Appreciation can be useful in an imperfect world. We can recognise the value of what we currently have without giving up on changing our lives and the world. In fact, appreciation can help give us the energy and mindset to make transformations.
  2. Begin where you are. Recognise that there will always be some degree of difficulty in life. If you don’t appreciate what you have now, you might never appreciate what you have.
  3. Identify what you have. Begin by acknowledging what you don’t have in this world. Let it all out. Once that’s done, list all the things you do have – personally, culturally, worldly, cosmically. Let it all in.
  4. Reflect on what you have. Write about or speak with someone about one or more of the things on your list, exploring why you appreciate it.
  5. Keep the deeper meaning of appreciation in sight. It’s one thing to have a good life and to notice how good it is. A deeper form of appreciation happens when you appreciate what’s going well in spite of what is not.
  6. Allow yourself to appreciate imperfection. The inherent imperfection of life can force you to recognise what you value. And it can help you to see that none of us are without flaws, and all of us deserve appreciation.

Why it matters

Many people today rightfully feel angry about the world. This anger can have a positive effect when it motivates us to try to improve conditions. But, of course, it can also be very dangerous. Energy from anger is often like that from a fossil fuel: it is cheap and easy to use, but it is ultimately destructive, and eventually it runs out.

When people think of appreciating what they have, they might imagine simple self-help clichés that appeal to those who think only about themselves and what they possess. But, as I’ve tried to argue, appreciation is in fact much more than this. And we can use it to replace anger as a source of motivation. Because appreciation is more like geothermal energy: once you tap into it, it is an endless resource, and it can provide clean energy with minimal side-effects.

This other kind of energy can have profound psychological benefits. On an individual level, it can reduce some of the stress and difficulty of constantly grasping and wanting. It can increase your sense of contentment and meaning by helping you focus on what gives you these things. And it can help you learn to care for yourself and what matters to you.

Furthermore, if you learn to appreciate imperfection and the deeper meaning of appreciation in general, you can become humbler, more considerate toward others, and more capable of changing the world in ways that promote general wellbeing. That’s because the more we appreciate the world around us, the more we come to value and care for it, and thus the more clarity and energy we might have to help sustain and improve it.

To maximise the benefits of appreciation, you need to understand how you as a person are linked up to concentric circles of worldly support that make everything you do and achieve possible. Truly appreciating what you have means coming to value and care for all these circles that sustain you, and whose repair and maintenance in turn becomes part of your duty on this planet. Appreciating what you have won’t solve your problems, or the world’s problems. But it might help you become the kind of person who is able to flourish while still advocating for change.

Links & books

The book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals (2021) by Oliver Burkeman is a well-written and entertaining account of how to appreciate the limited time we have in our lives.

Tricia Hersey’s book Rest Is Resistance: A Manifesto (2022) can help you better understand why things that might not seem political, like rest or appreciation, can be radically reorienting and powerful.

Zhuangzi is a classic Taoist text with many recommendations for how to live a simple life full of wonder – an emotional state that is closely linked to appreciation, because it helps us see the value in what we might otherwise overlook.

Michael Sandel’s book The Tyranny of Merit (2020) explores what goes wrong when society is based on the haves always having more, both in terms of wealth and prestige, and how to reorient toward a more general appreciation of what we have in common.

The TV show The Good Place (2016-20) is a perfect embodiment of the idea that appreciating the flawed people around you can lead to extraordinary insights – and might just change the cosmos.

Ruth Chang’s TED talk ‘How to Make Hard Choices’ (2014) can help you appreciate making the most difficult decision of your life.

And if you liked this article, you might consider reading my book The Good-Enough Life (2022), which is about how appreciating imperfection is linked to better outcomes not only for individuals and their relationships, but also for our politics and planet.