If you’re wondering how to appreciate life, the best way to do it is by practicing gratitude and reminding yourself of your own mortality. We take life for granted because mortality is scary, so it’s easier to ignore it. But ignoring the fact that our time is finite means it’s harder to appreciate our lives.
A line from a recent movie stuck with me:
“Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.”
Why do so many movies and works of fiction come back to this core message? It’s because we forget—frequently—that everything we have is temporary. We take life for granted until we’re reminded that we can’t.
So instead of acknowledging our mortality, we focus on projects of meaning and legacy, or avoid thinking about it through distractions and busyness.
Recent studies have even suggested that our brains are wired to diminish our own mortality.
Let’s explore the science behind why we keep forgetting our own mortality, why that leads us to take life for granted, and how we might be able to more consistently appreciate our lives.
How to appreciate life
The first step to a greater appreciation of life is to start a gratitude practice.
This can be as simple as looking back on your day and remembering three things you were grateful for during the course of the day. A gratitude journal may help with this. It can also be good to look back on for inspiration when you’re having trouble accessing gratitude.
Doing this builds your “gratitude muscle,” helping you strengthen the habit of appreciating small things in your daily life.
A second approach is to remind yourself of your own mortality, as a way to appreciate the preciousness of what you have.
When we go through the world as if we’ll live forever, it can be harder to appreciate each moment.
The ancient Romans practiced a philosophy called Stoicism, in which remembering your mortality was a central tenet.
They even engaged in a practice called “negative visualization” in which you imagine that you’ve lost the things you hold dear. Then, you exit the visualization exercise and see that you still have everything you thought you’d lost.
Similarly, in the middle ages, it was common for philosophers and theologians to leave a replica of a human skull on their desk as a reminder of their mortality.
The point of these exercises is not to make you anxious about death, but to shift your frame of mind so you can take advantage of life.
Why we take life for granted
Humans are unique among animals in that we’re aware of our own mortality.
But that awareness is fleeting.
A 2019 study found that our brains work to protect us from the existential fear of death by interpreting death as something that only happens to other people.
Essentially, our brains nudge death into the background and say “that won’t happen to us.”
The study, conducted at Bar Ilan University in Israel, required volunteers to watch a screen with various words flashing while their brain activity was monitored.
When words related to death showed up, the areas of the brain related to predictions about the self weren’t activated.
According to Yair Dor-Ziderman, one of the study’s researchers:
“We have this primal mechanism that means when the brain gets information that links self to death, something tells us it’s not reliable, so we shouldn’t believe it.”
Separately, a 2021 study in Japan looked at an elderly population to analyze how the brain reacts to thoughts of “self-death.”
The study found that only one area of the brain (the supplementary motor area) is activated during thoughts of your own death. Other areas of the brain may actually work to distance thoughts of death from the self.
What does all this mean?
It means that to truly appreciate the fact that we’re alive, we may have to fight against our own biology.
The denial of death
It’s not only your biology you’re working against.
As humans, we’re also driven to find meaning and leave a legacy.
In his book The Denial of Death, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker argued that this search for meaning and legacy is the result of the knowledge of our mortality.
The existential weight of mortality is so great that we displace that knowledge onto the pursuit of a series of “immortality projects” and onto a search for meaning.
While we may not consciously realize we’re being motivated by mortality, we are. But our attention is on our projects and legacy, not on the awareness of our death.
This isn’t to say that the pursuit of meaning is misdirected, of course.
It’s part of what makes us human.
But to the extent that it shields and distracts us from remembering our own mortality, we may find it harder to fully experience the miracle of what we already have.
Sadly, appreciating life is not an evolutionary priority
In one sense, our brains are doing something good when they shield us from constant reminders of death.
It can feel paralyzing to know that our lives could end at any time. It also takes energy—energy that our brains would rather devote towards survival and procreation.
On the other hand, without reminders that our time is limited, it can be difficult to appreciate the life we have.
Sadly, gratitude is not an evolutionary priority. Our brain doesn’t care if we’re happy. It only cares if we pass along our genes.
That’s why if we want to keep our limited time front-and-center in order to appreciate what we have, we have to fight an uphill battle.
Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think
We humans are a contradictory bunch. We’re the only animals that understand that we’ll someday die. Some of our greatest accomplishments are driven by this knowledge.
At the same time, we spend much of our lives forgetting this fact. Distractions and immortality projects help us escape from the existential heaviness of it. Our brains may even work to shield us from it.
We can’t walk around all day thinking about our mortality. But the less we think about our limited time, the fewer chances we have to be grateful for what we have.
So what do we do, then? Start small. Try to build a gratitude habit, little by little. Consider negative visualization exercises. Put a skull on your desk (if that’s your thing).
And the next time a movie, or a book, or a passing comment reminds you of your limited time on Earth, don’t bury that feeling.
Instead, consider letting it linger. Those moments can help us remember the miracle of simply being.
And we need as many reminders as possible