A few months ago I got food poisoning. The sequence of events that led to me falling for a box of discounted grocery store sushi that had been bought and consumed on Thursday began causing me to wake up a bit on a Friday, which turned into 12 hours of vomiting. I held myself in a fetal position until I felt a pain in my leg from the dryness. On Saturday, the smell of my partner cooking breakfast still made me gush. I drank water, took naps intermittently, and nibbled on little golf balls of white rice.
But on Sunday, Glorious Sunday, I woke up to a wonderful little pain and fatigue. The brain fog is gone. My skin felt full of fluid. Surprised by the recovery, I found myself behaving uncharacteristically calm. When I fell and broke a ceramic pot while emptying the dishwasher, I neither cursed nor freaked out. Instead, I scooped up the pieces with glee. I won’t sweat the little things. I was back to normal again, feeling sublime.
Yet, as I enjoyed my newfound bliss, an alarming thought nibbled into my mind: I knew that as the hours passed and the specter of illness receded, my new view, too, would fade. Much of my abundance was determined by absence, the burden of aches and vomiting being lifted. It will only be a matter of time until I feel normal again, and I will be back to worry about all the little details I always worry about.
People have different baselines for health, and some may be more or less appreciative of whatever condition they are in. However, humans have long lamented the ephemeral joy of comfort. The feeling is manifested in all circumstances: adhere to the deadline, pass the test, finish the marathon. It can be particularly acute in matters of wellness. “Health is not valued until disease comes,” wrote the 17th-century British scholar Thomas Fuller. Or, as the nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer sighed: “Just as we feel not the health of our whole body but only the little place where a shoe is pinched, so we also think not of the totality of our well-functioning affairs, but of some trivial thing which annoys us.”
In other words, many of us are very bad at evaluating good health when we are lucky enough to have it. And anyone who experiences this superlative gratitude is unlikely to hold onto it for long. Indeed, by Monday morning, the twilight of recovery had faded. I was busy with emails and working again, unaware that just 60 hours ago I could barely sit up straight in bed, let alone at my desk. This bothered me. Am I damned to stay like this forever? Or is there anything I can do to change?
To some extent, I’m sad to report, the answer may be no. While it is certain that some people may go through severe illness or injury experiences that completely change their outlook on life, the tendency to fall back into oblivion appears to run deep into the human psyche. We have limited resources for attention, so in order to survive, our brain tends not to waste them focusing on systems that are working well, Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, told me. Instead, our mind has evolved to identify threats and problems. Psychologists call this negativity bias: we direct our attention more to what is wrong than what is right. If your body is in control, your mind is making sense, it is better to stress over a missed project or conflict with your friend than to sit back and feel like everything is fine.
The second psychological phenomenon that may work against any lasting joy in recovering from illness is the pleasurable adaptation, which is the idea that after positive or negative life events, we essentially get used to our new circumstances and return to a basic level of subjective well-being. Delicious adaptation has been used to explain why people win the lottery in the long run Not happier than those who haven’t; And why romantic partners lose passion, excitement, and appreciation to each other over time.
Arguably, adaptation should not be seen as a great tragedy. For health, in particular, there is a practical component to the human ability to exist without too much attention. so we are supposed to run. “If our bodies weren’t causing us problems, it wouldn’t be worth it to walk around and be grateful all the time. Amy Gordon, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, told me that you should use your mental energy for other things. If we have to feel with our clothes,” she said. On our bodies all day, for example, we’d be constantly distracted. (This is actually a symptom of some chronic disorders, like fibromyalgia — Lauren Zalosky, a writer who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and lupus 22 years ago, told me that this makes her skin sensitive to touch. As if she was constantly suffering from the flu.)
All that said, there are real costs to taking health for granted. First, it can make you less healthy, if you don’t take care of yourself as a result. On the other hand, maintaining a certain level of discretion is a good way to avoid becoming an idiot. Throughout the pandemic, for example, there has been “this language about how the ‘only’ people who die are ‘old people’ or people with pre-existing conditions,” as if those deaths were more acceptable, Emily Taylor, vice president The Long-COVID Alliance, a group that advocates for research into post-viral disease, told me. Taylor argued that acknowledging that our health is poor—and certainly will age many of us—could counteract this kind of cruelty and encourage people to treat the elderly and those with chronic conditions or disabilities with more respect and kindness.
In my view, there is something to be gained on an individual level as well. In recent years, I’ve seen friends and loved ones dealing with life-altering injuries and diagnoses. I know one’s circumstances can lead to a phone call or a moment of inattention. Being healthy, having basic needs met – that life is so “normal” that it’s a bit boring – is a luxury. While I live in those blessed happy times, I don’t want my fortune to slip away from my notice. When things are good, I want to know how much I take care of them.
What I really want is to hold onto a sense of gratitude. In the field of psychology, gratitude It could be something of a loaded term. Over the past decade or so, articles, podcasts, self-help books, research papers, celebrities, and wellness influencers alike have extolled the benefits of feeling grateful. (famous for opera Keep a gratitude journal For more than a decade.) At times, the popularity of gratitude has been at its own expense: the modern gratitude movement was criticized To exaggerate the potential benefits and push a Western perspective, wealthy and distinguished He can appear to ignore the realities of extreme suffering or systemic injustice. It’s also annoying to be constantly told that you should be more grateful for things.
But part of the reason gratitude has become such a popular concept is because of the abundant research pointing to the truth emotional gain. Feeling grateful has been associated with improved life satisfaction, an increased sense of well-being, and a greater ability to form and maintain relationships, among other benefits. (Research on the effects of gratitude on physical Health is inconclusive.) To me, though, attraction is less scientific and more logical anyway: Learning to honestly appreciate everyday blessings like being healthy, or food in the fridge, feels like being able to tap into a renewable source of contentment. It’s always easy to find stress in life. Let me remember the things you should smile about, too.
One way to get the most out of gratitude might be to reframe the way people tend to think. Emmons told me via email that a common misconception is that gratitude is a positive feelings that results from something good happening to us. (This may also be part of the reason why it is difficult to appreciate conditions like health that remain stable for many people day in and day out.) Gratitude is an emotion, but it can also be an action, which researchers call the “characteristic of gratitude.” Some people tend to feel grateful more than others due to factors such as genetics and personality. But Emmons says this kind of “unlimited gratitude” can also be learned, by developing habits that contribute to more persistent ambient awareness, rather than a conditioned response to ever-changing circumstances.
How does this look in practice? “I don’t know that we can, with every breath we have in every moment, be grateful for our breath. That’s too long,” Gordon says. “But that doesn’t mean you don’t build in a moment for it at some point in your day.” If If you’re recovering from a cold, for example, you can practice stopping whenever you walk out the door to appreciate your nose isn’t clogged up before you burst into life.Another tactic, from Emmons, is to think about your worst moments, like the times you were sick. : “Our minds think from the perspective of counterfacts,” which are comparisons between the way things are and how they might be. “When we remember how hard life was in the past and how far we have come, we put a clear contrast in our mind, and that contrast is a fertile ground for gratitude.”
You can also think of gratitude as an action, Emmons Wrote. This is akin to the historical concept of gratitude, which since the days of the Romans has been associated with ideas such as duty and reciprocity – when someone does something kind for us, we are expected to return the favor, whether it is to thank them, pay, return, or push forward. In this sense, being grateful for your body probably means doing your best to take care of it (and perhaps abstaining from risky behaviors like throwing dice on discounted grocery store sushi).
In 2015, fibromyalgia writer Lauren Zalewski founded an online community that supports people with chronic pain by helping them form a grateful mindset. She told me that before her diagnosis, she took her health for granted and “hit her body.” Now, she eats vegan, takes supplements, does yoga, stretches, sleeps more, and gets in the sun regularly – these are the little things that I personally have found helpful in managing her constant pain. “So while I am a chronically ill person,” she ponders, “I consider myself healthy.”
Given my incident of food poisoning, I think I was prepared to think more deeply than usual on the topics of illness and health. In the past two and a half years, I’ve watched COVID-19 show that anyone can get sick, possibly seriously ill. Now, as the head of the World Health Organization tells us so “The end is in sight“As for a pandemic (and President Joe Biden controversially declared the pandemic over), it is tempting to imagine that humanity is about to wake up in the morning after a hellish illness.
Perhaps it is an illusion to hope that even a global pandemic can lead to some kind of long-term collective mental shift about the impermanence of health and life. I didn’t become a completely different person after recovering from vomiting my gut a few months ago either. But perhaps the simple act of remembering the health we still have in the wake of the pandemic can make a small difference in how we move forward — if not as a community, then at least as individuals. I’m sure I’ll never get past my descent to take my body for granted until it’s too late. But for now, every day, I still get a golden opportunity to try. I would take it.