Taking things for granted is a human condition. But the things we take for granted in life are often the things which matter the most. The current crisis has forced us all to reexamine our priorities and focus on the things that really matter. How can we stop taking the important things in life for granted and show gratitude for what we have?
What do we take for granted?
The big one of course is our health. When everything is working as it should, it rarely crosses our mind – particularly when we are young - that we might face problems at some point. For the lucky among us, for example, the ability to hear is something we do not even see as an “ability” at all. It’s simply there. Our surroundings and environment are also things we have grown up with – for example clean water, trees, food supplies and parks – and a world without these things is inconceivable for most, despite stark warnings from climate change activists to the contrary.
Our freedoms are something past generations have fought for (and in some countries current generations are still fighting for) and yet have become such a constant in our lives that now we don’t give a second thought to, for example, voting in an election or travelling across borders. Friends, family and romantic relationships enrich our lives and offer social and practical support, and while our digital lives and social media means our networks are getting wider, our relationships are not necessarily becoming deeper. We are guiltier than ever of forgetting birthdays, we have stopped visiting people for that one-on-one chat and prefer to communicate via text and email.
It is ironic that it is only when we start to lose these valuable things in life that we recognise just how valuable they are. As Joni Mitchell told us in her hit song Big Yellow Taxi from 1970: “Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got till it's gone.”
Why are we taking these things for granted?
Often the things we are guilty of taking for granted are the things that seem most consistent and reliable in our lives. We assume they will always be there, and we never expect them to be gone.
Our health will always be there, well because it always has been. Our surroundings will always be there because the sun has always shone and the rain has always come, every week and year that we have been alive. Our loved ones and friends will be there because, well, where else would they be? The very consistency of their presence lulls us into the illusion that they are permanent.
Is taking things for granted a bad thing?
The truth is, nothing lasts unchanging over time. Impermanence is a fundamental truth. Our relationships, the circumstances and situations we find ourselves in, everything around us - all of it eventually changes. Most of us know this on an intellectual level, but we tend to fall victim to the fallacy of permanence time and time again.
Taking things for granted has a bad reputation because it implies that this lack of attention might irreparably damage the things we hold most dear. For example, taking your spouse for granted is a surefire way to make them feel unloved. Taking your health for granted can lead you to take poor care of yourself.
But taking things for granted doesn’t need to be like this. Letting things drift into the background doesn’t mean we don’t care about these things any more – it just means that our attention has been diverted to something new which needs more of our focus. The fact that something moves into the background and we are not focusing on it is less about taking something for granted, rather can often be a sign that we are comfortable with this area of our life.
Take the example of a relationship. Research on adult attachment styles, for example, shows that people who feel secure in their relationships and don't worry about losing their partners tend to have healthier, happier relationships and fewer psychological problems. In contrast, people who are more acutely aware of the possibility of losing their partners tend to suffer psychologically and romantically.
Taking things for granted has a bad reputation because we think of it as the opposite of gratitude, but it doesn't have to be. We just have to think how we can be a little bit more grateful for what we have.
How can we be more grateful?
Life is made up of moments. We all have them; those small moments or things that often go unnoticed or unappreciated because we think they’re either insignificant or we take them for granted because we live in a culture that celebrates big accomplishments. But what if we made it a habit to embrace and celebrate the small things? Real life is happening all around us while we’re waiting for the big thing we hope is going to give us some sort of inner peace, contentment or joy. The truth is that often the things that matter most are the small ones.
Most countries affected by corona virus have introduced regulations encouraging residents to stay indoors. Never before had we ever considered our freedom to leave the house and meet up with friends would be taken away from us, but the unthinkable has happened. But perhaps there is a different way to look at the situation. We are now spending more time at home, with fewer outside distractions. This should give us space to reflect on the things that really matter.
By becoming more mindful, we can train ourselves to get better at focusing our attention on the things that really matter right here and now. How can we do this?
Remind yourself that everything is finite – without driving yourself crazy!
On an intellectual level we all know that nothing lasts forever, but to remind ourselves of this every day will only make us needlessly sad. Perhaps it is best to choose our moments for this – for example, if a friend experiences the death of a loved one, it is important to inwardly reflect that we could easily lose people too. And aren’t we lucky they are still with us.
Live in the present – while taking positive steps towards the future
In order to stop taking so much in life for granted we need to stop being consumed by the past or the future and spend time appreciating the present. However, at the same time it is possible to have goals for our future and take action towards them. If you are healthy, ask what you can do to preserve it and take care of yourself physically and psychologically. If you have great friends and family, how can you let them know how much you value them?
Tune in and notice your surroundings
At the moment it is more necessary than ever to go outside and appreciate the outside world, taking stock of the beauty of your environment. But the inside of our home still counts as your surroundings. Perhaps use the time at home to think about what you both love about your home but how you could also improve it.
Allow yourself to “feel”
Telling yourself you need to enjoy every moment is unrealistic. The truth is, not everything in life is enjoyable. Simply allow yourself to feel and recognise your thoughts for what they are. Often a small meditation session each day can allow you to come to terms with your thoughts and, if negativity creeps in, gives you the space to decide whether action is needed.
Be of service
Helping others is a proven way of improving your mental health. Not only are you often coming into contact with many people worse off than yourself – and if ever there is a direct way to feel gratitude it is this – you are also contributing to a better community and this is to everyone’s benefit. During these difficult times this help is even more necessary. You could offer to bring your elderly neighbours shopping, for example, or support small local businesses in your area.