Have you heard the song Don’t Know What You Got (Till It’s Gone) by the band Cinderella? ’80s glam metal may be out of vogue, but the message behind the song rings as true as ever.
We have a tendency to take things for granted while we have access to them. And as soon as we lose that access, we feel regret, wishing we had appreciated it more while we still could.
For thousands of years, Stoics have advocated a technique to handle this problem, commonly known as negative visualization. This technique allows you to better appreciate your current lot in life by vividly imagining how much worse off you could be. While no doubt effective, this approach is a little intense.
Another approach is starting a gratitude journal. One study suggests that logging gratitude in a journal even just three times per week can have a positive impact on our happiness.
In my experience, gratitude journals are more effective when paired with techniques for working with emotions and attachments (e.g. mindfulness meditation or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)). Otherwise, you may feel nagging anxiety while expressing gratitude for something, because deep down, you’re afraid of losing that thing. So along with gratitude journaling, I use Calm for meditation and Moodnotes for CBT.
More recently, though, my favorite exercise for finding happiness in the present moment is what I call stepping into the future.
If I’m waiting for the subway, shopping at the grocery store, or am in a reflective mood, I think about what life will be like, ten or even twenty years from now. The more vividly I can do this, the better.
I then step into the life of my future self and try to emulate how I would think about the present day. Will I wistfully remember certain aspects of my youthful days? What about today will I wish I could go back and experience again? Will my life be drastically different that far into the future due to new obligations or age-related problems?
This exercise typically results in a bittersweet feeling of happiness and acceptance that my future self will likely not have the same lifestyle freedom nor youthful vitality that I currently possess. It almost feels like, for a moment, I was my future self and have just been given the gift of traveling back through time to live as the younger version of myself again. A sci-fi-esque chance to relive my youth; to make the most of time and opportunities I might be at risk of wasting.
It’s impossible to know what your future will look like, but you can safely assume that you’ll continue to age and face the challenges that come along with that. For that reason, this exercise is a strong reminder to appreciate the aspects of your life you may not be able to enjoy in future decades. It’s a reminder that certain goals and dreams should be acted on sooner rather than later. It’s a reminder to choose happiness in the moment.