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Simulating the Future to be in the Present


I was thinking about ways we can remind ourselves to enjoy life, specifically, how we can appreciate the things we have in our lives right now? It's easy for us to take things for granted when we have them over time without change [1]. Relationships, in particular, come to mind. The idea is that it's too late to treasure (and act on) a wonderful person or circumstances until afterwards. This thinking is captured by expressions like "Absence makes the heart grow fonder" and "You don't know what you've got till it's gone" (from Big Yellow Taxi, a song before my time, but which I find meaningful).

So, if loss leads to appreciation, can we simulate it mentally and be more fulfilled when we return? The technique might be like so: Pick someone you are failing to appreciate - just a tiny bit, maybe, like your spouse - and imagine your world without him. Taste it, experience your feelings, and really visualize how your life would be different. Then bring yourself back to the present. Has your perspective changed? Are you more likely to practice active gratitude?

Actually, we have something that plays this role: Art. Watching a tear-jerker, reading about someone else's loss, or drinking in a beautiful painting helps us to appreciate the riches in our lives. These things take us out of our lives for a moment, putting us into an alternative state/reality that gives us a datapoint for comparison to our lives. I'm an engineer and scientist at heart, so this insight about art gave me a big shift about priorities, esp. in school. (I got zero exposure to culture when getting my B.S. in Electrical Engineering.)

Finally, in addition to making us thankful, it is a coin in the regret prevention piggy bank.

Here are some examples to try:

  • the death of a loved one

  • inclimate weather (if it's warm where you live, pretend it's winter then step outside and be surprised!)

  • life without electricity

  • being deathly sick

I'm curious:

  • Have you used this technique? On what?

  • How has it changed your perspective?

  • What things in our lives do this in a different form? (E.g., having a bad dream.)

  • In what settings should we not apply this? (Think self-pity, depression, or denial.)


  • [1] Maybe this is related to our brains ability to tune out that which becomes static. This is obviously evolutionarily advantageous - things that aren't changing don't need our precious attention. Movement in particular deserves scrutiny. (Please: Share the name and good references for this!)

Reader Comments (6)

"It's easy for us to take things for granted when we have them over time without change. Relationships, in particular, come to mind."
I just finished making a slide show of family pictures. I'm not a particularly sentimental person but I try my best to be grateful for the close relationships in my life. In the process of editing the pictures I spent allot of time carefully looking at the faces of my loved ones and events that we shared. What surprised me was how emotional I felt. It seemed as if my 'critical mind' was busy with the project and a 'mind of gratitude' was present. My daughter's smile and laughter were joyful and touching, my wife's support, love and good cheer were in her eyes, and my dogs loyalty and companionship were a treasure.

December 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Courtney

Excellent insight and example, Paul. Thanks so much for sharing it. I've experienced something similar. I put together a little movie for my mom for Christmas a few years ago (iDvd on the Mac made it easy) which consisted of a slideshow with music in the background, plus a few short movies thrown in. I looked at it a few weeks ago, and felt full of love. Going through our pictures gives me similar feelings. I usually have two simultaneous ones: Joy at what I have and what we shared, and regret (not sure the right word) for what has passed and can never be re-experienced (outside of memories and pictures, of course). A passed loved one, or a child when she was younger.

Good to have you here.

December 29, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

I was trying to do something like this with a therapist and he explained to me that the body really has almost no memory of pain.

Think about it: I have vivid recollection of songs, even as young as 3 or 4 years old I can remember like Sunshine Superman or Ticket to Ride. Or smells for example, I may not easily recollect them but I do recognize like smells from my old dorm 25 years ago. Or the Mona Lisa.

So hearing, seeing, smell, taste, we have vivid memories of these.
But pain not really. I wanted to try to recollect a painful part of my past in order to really appreciate where I was but I couldnt do it and my therapsist sort of explained it to me.

ANyhow that is what your post made me think of..
Good to be here. Best wishes for the New Year to all.

December 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJP in MD

Thanks for another insightful and thought-provoking post Matthew. I sometimes picture how my life will be like if I lost a loved one to death, and I usually panic and even tear up a bit at times. It’s too depressing and scary to even think about. Unfortunately, this realization of how heartbroken I’ll be does not always lead me to treat them better, but I do try to make a conscious effort most times. When I get too materialistic, I try to picture myself without any possession and homeless. True enough, it works because I learn to curb my inner greedy demon and appreciate everything I have more.

It’s been my practice to pull myself back from whatever deep end I fall into. I only hope to be more successful at applying most, if not all, of my realizations so I could live more.

For more tips and inspiration on how you could achieve a successful future, and to make more, live more and give more this 2010, visit www.makemorelivemoregivemore.com.

December 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTeresa

Hey, JP. Really interesting point. I was wondering about psychological pain vs. physical pain. The latter I'd agree with. When I got some gum surgery a four years ago I thought, "I never want to do this again." But now, I'll be going back in, and I'm not that much afraid. However, I have lots of unpleasant memories that pop up now and again. I've worked regularly with therapists, with good results, but some stuff stays with you. As the man said, "Boy, you're going to carry that weight for a long time." Fortunately, we have a lot of control.

Thanks so much for your insights. Have a great New Year.

December 31, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Thanks for your insights, Teresa.

December 31, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

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