What can we do to benefit fully from each day? How can we ensure that we appreciate and enjoy every day?
There are two ways that I recommend. The first is acquiring knowledge. The second is profoundly experiencing each moment. The trouble is that the two are usually thought to be in conflict with each other: a person can either concentrate on acquiring knowledge or on experiencing the moment. Such a view has led to two popular cultural stereotypes: one of a wrinkled old wise man, often an old scientist who is quite naive when it comes to daily life, and the other of a man ignorant of knowledge but enjoying life.
The two types fit into the stereotype of modern life, you lose some and you gain some. You can have knowledge but at the cost of ‘living’, or you can enjoy life but at the cost of knowledge.
Such thinking is in fact incorrect. The two approaches to life can easily coexist and support and enrich each other.
To understand this, let’s have a closer look at each point separately.
The Benefits of Knowledge
Whenever my wife and I go to a concert I get a bit envious. What she gets out of the music is so much more than what I get out of it. This is not because I don’t like music; I do. However, I just don’t understand it as well as she does. Beata graduated from a music school, so she can hear incomparably more than me. On the face of it we hear the same sounds, but she notices in them many aspects which I am not capable of noticing because I don’t have the appropriate knowledge base.
A short while ago she became interested in wine, and already she is able to experience much more in wine than I can, regarding its taste, bouquet or body.
I’m interested in whisky and coffee, and nowadays I enjoy them much more fully than I did in the past. I know how to drink them in order to appreciate them, and I know what not to do with them. With this knowledge, I’m far more sensitive to the subtle differences in taste and aroma.
I play a lot of board games, and I’m capable of appreciating interesting game mechanisms and the way in which they interact with one another.
I used to paint miniatures used in wargames. Now I have knowledge of the wider spectrum of paint colors as well as of various painting techniques.
Knowledge of this sort allows us to enjoy life experiences to a greater, richer extent. The more you know about something, the fuller you experience it. The greater your knowledge, the more details and nuances you are able to discern. Knowledge of a particular subject considerably enriches the sphere of our lives relating to that subject. That makes the subject deeper and fuller. I sincerely recommend you to find at least a few areas in which to acquire such knowledge, which will lead to an immeasurably richer life.
Are there disadvantages to acquiring more knowledge? I can see one. It gives us a point of reference that makes it difficult for us to be satisfied with mediocrity. Having tried cakes from Lukullus patisserie (non-sponsored advertising) I find it hard to be happy with cakes from typical bakeries. They’re just not in the same league. Many coffee connoisseurs can’t drink instant coffee or even the typical espresso. I get around this by having two categories of coffee: the coffee to drink and the coffee to savor. I know a food lover who, having visited many restaurants and attended many cooking courses, now finds it difficult to go to restaurants. He knows he can cook better than the chefs do, and if he wants a really nice meal he’d rather prepare it himself.
And yet, this is not a huge problem. The wine expert will need a better bottle, though not necessarily more expensive, than the drunkard. However, that expert will experience greater pleasure from one glass of good wine than a drunkard from many bottles of lower-quality wine.
Seizing the Moment
Another way of obtaining greater life satisfaction is to frequently concentrate on experiencing life, on leaving your mind and its thoughts and enjoying the moment in its purest. There are various techniques that make this task easier, such as uptime exercises, tranquility meditation, mindfulness meditation, improvisational theater techniques and many others. Simply pausing for a few moments and paying attention to everything that is happening around us can be useful too.
From a neurological perspective, what happens in such situations is a reduction of connectivity between various areas of the brain. The effect is similar to the one caused by alcohol and other drugs. Such a limitation in the transmission of signals in the brain makes the experience fuller and deeper as we experience it without a wider context — without judgments or references to previous experiences.
Experience of this type need not be in conflict with knowledge. Possessing wide knowledge leads to the creation of various cognitive categories that exist in the brain even when the connectivity between the various areas is reduced. Although it is impossible to attempt to enrich our knowledge at a given moment and simultaneously experience that moment fully, we can do one after the other. We can devote time to acquiring knowledge and later use it to experience a moment more fully. The trick is switching easily from one process to the other.
Are there negatives to experiencing a moment? In a here-and-now state it is difficult to consciously use lessons from the past or to consciously plan the future. Focusing on the current moment can lead us to a dead end, but this isn’t a reason to stop this type of functioning: we just need to do it wisely.
How to connect both methods
Whenever discussing this subject, I like to refer to an evening that I will remember until the end of my days. It happened in Budapest around ten years ago. We’d just finished a conference regarding the reduction of drug-related harm, so we went to relax. There were fewer than twenty people there, and I was one of the youngest (the average age was well over 50). We had a simple dinner in a restaurant on the Danube, and we emptied a few bottles of wine, but no one got drunk. An yet it was one of the most wonderful evenings I’ve ever had. The focus was on joie de vivre, the joy of life, a quiet rejoicing in the moment coupled with full appreciation of its value. It was something far greater than any student party that I’ve ever attended. My colleagues in Budapest knew how to enjoy life, wanted to enjoy life, devoted time to do so, and had the knowledge required for said appreciation.
I’ve enjoyed a few similar occasions since that Budapest evening. Most of them were in the company of people who were older, close to retirement. They combined knowledge allowing them to appreciate the experience of the current moment with having more of a distance and not rushing that allowed them to stop and enjoy the moment
Age is obviously an advantage in such situations. An older person has less of a need to prove something, less need to hurry and greater ability to stop and seize the moment. This person can catch his or her breath. During the span of our lives we are presented with many opportunities to learn how to experience a moment. Older people have had a longer time to learn, but that does not mean that younger ones are incapable of doing the same.
I suggest working simultaneously on the following two points: