“The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.” — James Taylor
More than ever, we are trying to accomplish a great deal in our lifetimes. Maybe I’m wrong on this, but as the developed world enjoys the luxuries of sound infrastructure, decent social programs, quality healthcare, and more, we have actually grown more intent on “doing something with our lives”, rather than rest on the laurels of our good fortune. It could be capitalist forces in action, the competitive nature driving us to feel we have to “one-up” our fellow humans. Or perhaps we are so accomplishment-oriented to justify a feeling of deservedness for the limitless privileges we enjoy from the work of those who have come before us.
I think of this in contrast to my grandfather, and even moreso my great-grandfather, whose time on earth was centered around survival, rather than finding oneself. His meaning of life likely focused more on surviving until tomorrow, on longevity in a morbid sense, as he largely sheltered, clothed, and provided for himself. His source of meaning was self-preservation at its truest. There was little time for “finding oneself”.
Such a stark contrast to the existential crises plaguing many 21st-century youths.
Despite the differences, it is beneficial to look at the common thread between both scenarios: both groups were focused on remaining alive and enjoying the next day that life gifted to them. For many generations, we have focused on adding more to our lifetimes: more days, more wealth (from food to Gucci belts), more enjoyment of life. Fulfillment has, and always will be, a primary driver of human existence.
It wouldn’t make sense to work this hard if humans did not enjoy the experience of life. So it also makes sense to talk about how we can appreciate our lifetimes even more.
Adding Life to Our Years
“It is not the years in your life that count, it is the life in your years.”
— Adlai Stevenson
I cannot tell you why self-help books and seminars are seemingly at an all-time high in popularity. I suspect that the luxury of “free time” in modern living gives birth to more existential questioning, and thus, more of us seeking the answers to the extent that we’ll pay for them.
What I do know to be true is that life is a journey that is meant to be enjoyed. Otherwise, why would we continue to work our asses off to continue living? Living is a full-time job.
Increasing longevity is a popular topic. There has been considerable discussion on the physical-side of longevity, such as nutrition, exercise, sleep, etc.
I intend to discuss the mental-side of longevity. So, let’s cover off a few of the physical-side ideas as a reminder, and then get into the mental side:
A Condensed List of Physical Longevity Tips:
- Drink primarily water. Drink more than you want to.
- Limit alcohol consumption. Drink less than you want to.
- Food: If it comes from the earth, you’re on the right track.
- Sugar is indirectly cancerous — avoid it (being overweight increases risk of 13 types of cancer).
- Sleep is your most powerful recovery method. Fit life in around your sleep schedule, rather than fitting sleep into your life schedule.
- Exercise every day. Firstly, exercise keeps our physical body functioning better. Secondly, it allows us to tap into a powerful combination of chemicals (such as endorphins) which instantly boost our moods. Thirdly, building a daily habit of exercise gives us a keystone habit upon which to build other great behaviours. Fourthly, we look awesome.
Great, glad we’ve covered those off. Hopefully, we’re all adhering to most of them … if not, those are some immediate ways to improve quality of life on the physical side.
The Enjoyment of Life is Mental
“Simply enjoy life and the great pleasures that come with it.”
— Karolina Kurkova
In lists of “13 ways to improve your life” articles, there is often a strong focus on the points listed above. While these are beneficial, I also feel we’ve come to beat a dead horse. If someone isn’t getting 8hrs of sleep per night, it is a lack of action that is hindering them, not a lack of knowledge.
Similarly, there has been great talk of mindfulness, of meditation, and of gratitude. However, I feel the linkage between why these practices are useful is often spoken to lightly, in favour of the neuroscience, or convincing someone to buy a Headspace subscription.
Life is a choose-your-own-adventure game. If left to our own devices, we will choose our own goals, develop our own habits, cultivate our own life philosophies.
This is the point.
Our lives are up to us to live, and up to us to enjoy. They’re also ours to remember. This is why we should focus on the life in our years, and not the reverse — our lives grow richer through diversity of experience. We also grow more capable as we pursue lofty goals, and we even develop greater resiliency should our plans go to shit.
The best way to enjoy and remember your life is to set a longer-term vision, but focus intently on maximizing each day of life you experience. It’s simple logic, really: if we live a life of truly memorable days, we will live a truly memorable life.
Gratitude, Mindfulness, and Patience are the name of the game. So let’s dive into how we build such a life through maximizing our days.
Tip #1: Gratitude
“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”
Life is a gift handed to us without us even trying. One day some industrial hospital light beams hit our eyes, some of us start crying, we’ve got our mom there, and BOOM the experience has begun.
Thus, from our very first day of existence, we should be thankful for the opportunity to live. Unless you distinctly remember elbowing all of the other sperm in search of the egg, you simply lucked out, my friend. So be thankful for it.
Oprah Winfrey is often portrayed as a champion of gratitude. Oprah has been quoted saying that “‘Thank you’ is the first thing she says every morning, before she’s even truly awake. The move acknowledges that she’s grateful to be alive, present, and in a body”. This continual practice of gratitude has us appreciate every day as it comes. Oftentimes it translates to a gratitude-journal (here’s an entry from Oprah’s). Other times it simply has us start our days in a positive mindset, rather than a neutral or negative one.
Therein lies the power of gratitude as a habit. When we are grateful, we re-wire our minds towards the positive. We develop a positive orientation on life. This not only emphasizes the positives but downplays the negatives:
“Gratitude helps people refocus on what they have instead of what they lack.” — Dr. Michael Craig Miller, Harvard Medical School
Gratitude allows us to develop a mindset of abundance. It cascades into higher self-esteem and less depression. And in a beautiful upwards spiral, gratitude’s ability to have us feel better also positively reinforces our practice of appreciation.
As a side note, I tend not to watch a lot of news, read many newspapers, etc, but I do attempt to practice gratitude any day. Is it any surprise that this incredible article found it’s way to me above all else? What you seek in the world is what you will find.
And therein lies another benefit of gratitude. It is an insulant against all of the negativity that plagues our environments. Being grateful is noticed by others. They will smile. They will deem you a positive person, someone they enjoy being around, which improves your friendships and improves their day.
Finally, being thankful often involves a process of reflection on all the benefits we have enjoyed, and we are set to enjoy today. When we return to positive memories, we increase serotonin production, which promotes happiness and relaxation. Recalling past memories also reinforces them in our minds. Over time, we both improve the strength of our positive memories, and orient ourselves towards positive experiences in our daily lives.
Thus, practising gratitude re-orients ourselves towards positive experience, it reinforces the wonderful memories we carry with us through life, and it opens doors to further enjoyment that would remain unopened if we did not approach our days thankful for the opportunity to live them.
So let’s be thankful for the chance to practice gratitude.
Tip #2: Mindfulness
The best way to create memories that last a lifetime is to be aware of what you are experiencing. One of the simplest ways to feel as if you have lived longer is to grow increasingly mindful of the gifts each day brings.
This idea is easily brushed off as a bunch of hot air, yet there is truth to it. Imagine you lived a lifetime primarily unaware of your surroundings, unaware of what you were doing, unaware of the emotions, challenges, dreams of others.
Now contrast this idea to someone who made a continued effort to remain present. To focus on what was happening to them moment-to-moment, focused on constantly remaining true to themselves and enjoying each moment as it came.
Who will have experienced more of life?
The more that we open ourselves up to life and the greater an effort we make to appreciate our days, the more of life we will actually experience. This too relates back to the idea of fitting more life into our years, rather than the opposite.
Part of this perspective is a respect for the moment. Moments are vast, yet will remain unnoticed until we make an effort to appreciate them in full. Every moment itself holds multiple layers: the obvious layers, the layers we notice with mindful thought, and layers almost always requiring reflection to appreciate.
A Slice of Mindful-Pie
Imagine the last time you bit into a delicious dessert. It could be a cake, a brownie, even a piece of fruit for some. Recall how sweet and delicious it was. How it lit up your tastebuds with delight.
The obvious layer of the moment would be “Ah, yes, this is a dessert. It is sweet and I enjoy it. What’s the time again? Back to my conversation…”
The mindful layer would be “This is the most delicious treat I’ve tasted in months. I can taste the caramel drizzle, the crunch of the outer chocolate crisps, the whipped cream filling. Imagine the effort that went into baking a delight such as this. And such artistry in the design of the drizzle on top! Ouu, it’s so moist, I can feel it’s sponginess in between my fingers …”
The layer requiring reflection plays out as such: “Man, that brownie was delightful. It tasted wonderful; I was even impressed with how it was made. Ah, and that was the time I caught up with Brooke. So nice to see her. And what a moment it was, being able to drive there on a whim to meet her, having the money to not bat an eye towards a coffee and a brownie, being able to text my mom after and describe my afternoon, living in a safe country, living with good health …” and the list goes on.
As we can see, each moment offers endless avenues for mindful appreciation. From what we’re doing in the present moment (a coffee and catch-up with a friend) to the subtle artistry of a pastry, to all of the miracles and privileges that went into how we got to the cafe, to the love we can feel in the moment, and how fortunate we are to live the lives we do.
A simple moment of eating a brownie can encapsulate all of this and more. Hell, I spent like 12 sentences just describing the event.
I guarantee you there are always opportunities to be more mindful, and in turn, appreciate more of our day-to-day.
This is how we live lives that do not take the subtleties for granted, but instead relish in their wonder. By doing so, we increase the number of distinct memories we acquire over our lifetimes… a wondrous way to experience more of our own lives.
After all, who will have experienced more of life: he who mindlessly goes about living the same life 50 years in a row, or she who is mindful of her life and ensures that she lives a different life on repeat, for 50 years? Both individuals could be working the same job, in the same family dynamic, and more, but if one remains mindful and makes an effort to accrue distinct memories, to look for the wonders of the moment … that person will have experienced nearly 50x more life than the other.
There is so much to each moment. Remain mindful of this, and notice yourself living more of life than you had known were even there.
Tip #3: Patience
Much like gratitude, patience is a virtue. Many of us have seen the “marshmallow” study on delayed gratification, where a child’s propensity to hold off on taking a marshmallow in the moment, for two marshmallows in the future, was essentially a predictor at whether they were better at life.
The idea of delaying gratification contains patience at its core. Without patience, we act immediately out of impulse and are unable to look to the future. This does not bode well for someone looking to enjoy a long, fulfilling life.
See, many agree that life is about the journey, and not about the destination. But in order to live this idea, we must remain patient. By its very nature, life will throw us curveballs. Life must give us “lows” in order for us to have context for the “highs”. To enjoy the journey that is life, we must simultaneously enjoy each day we are gifted, whilst also know that there are more days to come that further complete the process. This is akin to enjoying the act of painting, relishing each stroke of the brush, while remaining cognizant that with too few brushstrokes, the picture will be incomplete.
This idea of gratitude and patience has actually been confirmed elsewhere. A study out of Northeastern University revealed that those who appreciated the everyday things in life, those grateful for the small stuff, were more patient and able to make more sensible decisions. Remaining thankful for today gives us the satisfaction to be content with today, and patient for what lies ahead tomorrow.
If we’re patient, we won’t feel rushed… a feeling many experience as they try to juggle all the different aspects of their life, and achieve ambitious goals. Patience calms us down and feeds into the other two ideas of gratitude and mindfulness. When we give ourselves time to breathe, we can look around at all the wonder that engulfs us (mindfulness), and find the space needed to appreciate it (gratitude). Even a setback or misstep becomes another distinct memory, because we can see how it fits into the bigger picture; often our setbacks force us to become even better.
Again, you can’t have highs without having had lows. Through patience, we can appreciate each step in our journeys and revel in today, fully aware that wonder will also come tomorrow.
Adding Life to Our Years
Life is a fragile construct and can vanish instantly. Now that said, most of us will go on to live incredible lives spanning multiple decades; life expectancies continue to climb, and we are the beneficiaries of the breakthroughs making this so. But a long life is no use without the tools necessary to appreciate it. What a waste it would be to have such incredible gifts pass us by, without us giving them the time, attention, and appreciation they deserve.
The trick is to remain thankful for the moment. If we are remaining thankful for all that our lives afford us, by nature, we are also being mindful. And living fully in the moment gives us the fulfillment that drives a patient appreciation for all of life that lies ahead. Life indeed is about the journey.
So thank you for the time spent reading this piece. It is not the years in our life that count, but the life in our years. May you remain grateful, mindful, and patient.
Originally published at kyletymo.com.