It crushes me to say this, but it’s true: For the longest time, I never knew how to appreciate the little things in life. And so, even my greatest achievements caused great disappointments.
- When I submitted my bachelor thesis after six months of draining work I was dead-tired for two weeks straight. All I could think about was what the next big step would be.
- When I moved to my dream city in the hopes of finding a home, I found loneliness instead. I started overthinking absolutely everything. And I became miserable.
- When I realized I was able to make a living off my writing, it was cool. I was happy for an hour or two. But then it hit me: This is all I ever dreamed of. So why am I still not satisfied?
Clearly, there’s something wrong here. Big accomplishments almost never give us the satisfaction they should. Running on the proverbial hamster wheel for months or even years leaves us disappointed. Hungry for more. And from my experience: less happy.
So… what can we do?
The Solution: Learn How to Appreciate the Little Things in Life
The answer is simple yet counter-intuitive: Deep, long-lasting contentment hides in the little things.
Countless studies have found that low expectations, gratitude, flow states, and mindfulness are among the most powerful tools for our well-being. It’s also worth noting that these studies didn’t find things like:
- You have to win the NFL,
- become a bestselling author,
- or be the CEO of a multi-billion-dollar company.
No, the tiniest, most ordinary things in life can spark the greatest joy.
Why might that be? Well, unhappiness is wanting things to be different than they are right now. But when we learn how to appreciate the little things in life, we’re content with what we already have. We can finally breathe. Be at peace.
Here are four easy and actionable ideas.
1. Capture Your Life
Last week, I dusted off my watercolors and finally started painting again. And for some reason, I became particularly obsessed with painting clouds. Their shapes. Their colors. Their aura.
The only problem? It turned out that I suck at painting clouds. One time I painted a cloud that ended up looking like a floating drunk swan. Afterward, I became so frustrated that I needed to step outside to catch some fresh air. And surprisingly, that’s when something miraculous happened:
I could not stop looking at the clouds.
It was as if I’d never truly seen a cloud up to this point. Sure, you think it’s this white, wobbly thing floating in the air. But when you look closer, you’ll also see shades of grey, blue, and even pink. Clouds are the majestic zeppelins of nature.
I suddenly realized we’ve become so used to the hidden beauties of everyday life. But once you start looking, you can find them anywhere.
How to generate joy by capturing things
The real lesson here isn’t that everyone should start painting (although I encourage you to try it!). It’s that you can sharpen your appreciation for the little things by capturing them. How you do that is ultimately up to you. Some examples:
- Write about wind-rustling leaves in excruciating detail.
- Record the sound of birds chirping at the crack of dawn.
- Grab a notebook and a pencil and sketch parts of your neighborhood.
Go ahead and try it. Because here’s what you’ll find: Freezing a moment in time is impossible. Which is exactly what makes it so incredibly precious.
2. Find Joy in Anticipation
Two things get me out of bed every morning: Reading a chapter in an eye-opening book and making coffee. I love jumping out of bed because I look forward to these rituals. If books and coffee would randomly appear throughout the day, I would stay in bed for hours on end.
After I pour the liquid gold into my cup, I sit at my desk and boot up my computer. The magical scents of coffee fill my entire room. I can’t wait to take the first sip. But this is where I pause. Close my eyes. Feel the warmth of the cup. Sure, coffee tastes great. But it’s the anticipation that makes it so remarkable.
We often think we find the reward after getting something, achieving something, or doing something. But the truth is that the biggest rewards hide before the actual payoff.
Learning to find joy in anticipation is a superpower in a reward-driven world.
3. Stop When It’s Nice
There’s a German idiom I return to whenever I forget how to appreciate the little things in life:
Man soll aufhören wenn es am schönsten ist.
Literal translation: One should stop when it’s the nicest.
Growing up, I never knew what I should do with that information. In fact, it was so counter-intuitive that I started doing the opposite. Whenever I’d find something nice, I’d fill my whole life with it. More stuff, more video games, more movies, more sugar, more fast food, more everything.
But then I quickly noticed the problem:
The more you do nice things, the less nice they become. For example, I often eat a candy bar and crave another. But the more I eat, the less I actually enjoy them. And afterward, I just feel… empty. As if my dopamine receptors got clogged.
Ultimately, this is why babies are so fascinated by the world. They haven’t yet accustomed to the beauty surrounding us. And so, they adore everything they see. Train? Waaah. Butterfly? Weee. Dirty puddle? Yeeee.
Stopping when it’s nice things helps you reclaim some of that fascination.
In a world of abundant pleasures, this takes a lot of discipline. But you can start small. I substituted my candy bar dilemma with super dark chocolate. After dinner, I break off one piece and immediately put the rest back in the drawer.
We always think more is better. But it’s actually the opposite. We don’t appreciate abundance. We appreciate scarcity.
4. Help Others to Help Yourself
There’s this wildly popular notion in the self-help cosmos: The only person who can help you is yourself.
And, of course, that resonates with lots of people because it essentially means you can take complete responsibility. You can improve your life today and don’t need any of your pesky fellow humans to get there.
But what if we got it all wrong? What if we can’t help ourselves? What if real self-help is not helping yourself, but helping others?
Think about it — in which instance did you experience greater joy: When you did a little thing for yourself, or when you did a little thing for someone else?
I’m willing to bet my money on the latter. The joy of little things multiplies when you share them with others.
How to help yourself by helping others
It doesn’t take grand gestures to make others feel good. It’s about the little things. So start ridiculously small. Say hi to a stranger. Smile at that person waiting with you in line. Hold the door for someone. Leave a nice note for a colleague. Send a text message to a friend you haven’t talked to in a long time.
These really small yet meaningful acts of kindness are called micro-moments. They can create a resonance between two people, creating an upward spiral of well-being.
If you want, take it one step further and use your unique skills to brighten the life of others. Paint a picture. Bake a cake. Cook dinner. Help someone move.
Making others feel good makes you feel good. It’s addictive.
The Hidden Magic of Knowing How to Appreciate the Little Things in Life
There’s this poignant quote by writer Robert Brault I really love:
“Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.”
That’s the hidden magic of the little things. They can seem so insignificant next to a brand new Lamborghini. But down the road, we all know that being able to appreciate the clouds at sunset is worth so much more than money could ever buy.