How to Practice Appreciation to Improve Mental Health

“In my own worst seasons I’ve come back from my colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with life again.
– Barbara Kingsolver

When I went off meds, appreciation was one of the first techniques I used to rewire my brain towards positivity. For decades, my identity had been rooted in looking for the negative and focusing – intensely – on what was wrong. I needed every tool, every technique, I could find.

Appreciation isn’t the same as gratitude, though there are some aspects that overlap. I can appreciate the same things I’m grateful for (like compassionate and understanding landlords), but I don’t have to be grateful to appreciate, say, the sight of a robin nesting in a bare tree. They’re complementary practices for emotional resilience.

The ultimate goal of appreciation, for me, is twofold: 1) If I’m feeling negative, it can shift the resistance I feel inside, and 2) If I’m in a good mood, it reinforces and extends that feeling.

Appreciation is simply the act of finding things in my environment, in my life and in my current situation to appreciate. I’m not necessarily grateful for the smell of wood smoke – its absence wouldn’t make a difference in my life, but its presence enhances my experience.

In evolutionary terms, humans had to look for what was different or negative. The differences in our environment (like, say, tigers) were likely to get us killed. So our brains developed a greater ability to focus on and repeatedly notice the negative. We became “Velcro for negative and Teflon for positive.” After all, when a bear is approaching and you’re appreciating the radiant blue of the sky, you’re likely to become dinner.

Fortunately, for most of us in the first world, random, unexpected and imminent survival threats are rare. Yet our neurological hypervigilance has remained in our genetic structure, making us overreact to even the slightest perceived negative alteration in our world and continually focusing the mind on what’s wrong, rather than what’s right.

To rewire the brain away from this trait takes practice. The good news, though, is that we have that ability, through neuroplasticity. In simple terms, it means that “neurons that fire together, wire together” – however we perceive the world, positively or negatively, influences how we perceive the world in the next moment.

Appreciation is a way to pull myself forward with positive thoughts. It’s a great technique, because it doesn’t require that circumstances be anything other than what they are. I don’t have to deny any unpleasant emotions if they’re there; appreciation can co-exist with just about anything, as long as I’m present enough to appreciate.

There’s no denial in appreciation. It’s not a pushing-down of whatever feels “wrong.” If I feel anxiety, the anxiety is there and I can look for things to appreciate – a beautiful deer in the woods, a mural on the side of a restaurant, a genuine smile from a stranger. Because I live in nature and am an introvert, much of my daily appreciation is of nature. I’m continually amazed by the beauty and variation – texture and colour – of tree trunks. I appreciate crocuses in February, flower and tree buds in March, the robins that sit in bare trees through the winter, or the seal that pops up to say hi off the crab dock. I appreciate all of these things, and the more I pay attention to them, consciously note them, the more inclined my mind is to find other things to appreciate.

Appreciation can offset disappointment, too. When the 29 Gifts site closed, I was sad and disappointed; I knew I would miss it (and I do), but I appreciated (and was grateful) that it had been there, for the friends I made there, for the support I had during a difficult time, made easier by the practice of giving.

I live in the Pacific Northwest, which means our winters tend to be long, dark and rainy. At first – like most people – I labeled this “dreary.” Then I decided to look for the beauty in it. It’s not the same kind of beauty as in the spring, when the dogwood and cherry blossom trees burst into life, or summer, when it stays light and sunny till nearly 10pm. But there is a different kind of beauty in winter. The grey of a cloudy day can make colours in nature more vibrant. Sunlight through the near-constant fog in autumn is breathtaking. I can appreciate the winter rain because it gives rise to the beauty of the spring and summer (a few years ago, I decided to use the word “greening” instead of “raining”).

I live on an island, in a harbour, next to a mountain, so we have a lot of microclimates. It can be hailing on one block, sunny on the next and a torrential downpour across the street. Weather changes frequently – which is a good life lesson. Everything changes. We often have multiple layers of clouds, each of which looks different, and each of which is moving in a different direction. I can appreciate the beauty of the clouds.

There are always things to be grateful for, of course. But gratitude has a slightly heavier feel to it, an awareness of what our life would be lacking if it weren’t for _____. (Which can create a paradoxical effect in which we become more aware of the lack, rather than just the good thing.) Appreciation is more lighthearted, and in my experience, it shifts energy more easily than gratitude.

There are times when I feel down, when things aren’t going the way I think they should go, and in my funk, I can only appreciate intellectually. I look at a tree and think, “That’s nice.” Nothing shifts in my energy; it’s just a mental thing, yet there’s still a benefit to reminding my brain that not everything is horrible (the mind likes to be melodramatic and hyperbolic).

When there’s a lot of resistance in me, I play games: I walk along a block and actively look for as many things to appreciate as possible – sight, sound, smell, touch. After a full block of positive hypervigilance, it’s hard to remain in a bad mood. Other times, I challenge myself to find things to appreciate that I’ve never noticed before. It’s amazing what we don’t appreciate in our day-to-day lives unless we pay close attention. 

Image credit: Aaron Burden via Unsplash

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Sarah Chauncey

For more than two decades, I struggled multiple treatment-resistant mood disorders. I spent more than 20 years in psychodynamic therapy and tried 18 different medications. In 2010, I began searching for ways to rewire my brain naturally for inner peace. I write about the practices and insights that have improved my mental, physical and spiritual health.


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