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Why Aren’t We More Appreciative?

We like ourselves better and behave better when we appreciate.

Key points

  • Appreciation is a felt experience, not a verbal one.
  • It consumes so much mental energy that we can only do it in short bursts.
  • Interrelated fears restrain appreciation.
  • Hidden guilt and shame insidiously inhibit appreciation.

“The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.” - William James

We can add to James’ insight: The deepest reward of human nature is to appreciate.

Dictionaries don’t capture the psychological function of appreciation. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as: "Recognition and enjoyment of the good qualities of someone or something."

I believe the following comes closer to its psychological importance: Appreciation is opening your heart to allow yourself to be enhanced by certain qualities or behaviors of people or by the beauty of nature or art.

Implied in this definition is that, in our hearts, we want to appreciate more but suffer covert inhibitions to doing so. We'll address the inhibitions after listing the benefits.


  • Regulates negative emotions (it’s incompatible with resentment, anger, anxiety)
  • Overrides bad habits (makes us less self-obsessed)
  • Aids emotional healing
  • Strengthens connections
  • Gives dimension, dynamics, and color to experience
  • Increases meaning and purpose
  • Makes us happier.

In the act of appreciation, life means more to us, the experience of being alive is enhanced.

It’s Not Compliments

Appreciation is a felt, not a verbal experience. It's more apparent in emotional demeanor than in language. The term, “empty compliments” refers to verbalizing appreciation without feeling it and to substituting praise for felt appreciation.

It’s Not So Easy

Appreciation is easily blocked when:

  • It seems to consume too much energy
  • There’s a dread of disappointment, failure, rejection, or exploitation
  • There’s hidden guilt and shame.

Though it’s hard to do when energy and other physical resources are low, appreciating actually generates energy. Once we turn it on, we feel more alert and alive. Here’s a little test to see if this is true for you:

When you’re tired, hungry, or stressed, you won’t feel like appreciating your partner and children, but do it anyway. See if you feel more energetic while appreciating something about them.

If inhibitors such as fear of disappointment, rejection, failure, or exploitation keep you from appreciating, recognize the inherent self-reward of appreciation. Self-reward makes us less dependent on reciprocation. I feel like a better person when I appreciate, regardless of the response from others.

Hidden Inhibitions: Guilt and Shame

Guilt for not having been appreciative in the past inhibits appreciation in the present. The shame-inhibitor results from perceived inadequacy—we don’t think we can be appreciative. Guilt and shame usually hide beneath anger, resentment, contempt, or cynicism.

Guilt and shame test:

Think of a time you were angry or resentful at your partner or children or when you were cynical or contemptuous toward them.

What might you also have felt guilty about?

What might you have also felt ashamed of?

How would you have felt had you acted on your guilt, shame, cynicism, or contempt with appreciation of your loved one?

Guilt, shame, cynicism, and contempt often result from a violation of your values. Act in line with your values, that is, find something to appreciate, and feel the guilt, shame, cynicism, and contempt dissolve.

Another inhibition of appreciation confuses it with gratitude. Authors tend to conflate concepts of gratitude with appreciation and sometimes use the terms interchangeably. Research is mainly about gratitude because it’s easier to operationalize and more amenable to self-report. Yet there are differences that make appreciation a more rewarding quality to develop.

Gratitude tends to be short-lived. In relationships, it depends on someone doing something for you. Because it’s short-lived, it can trigger resentment when someone doesn’t do what you want, leading to the short-sighted attitude:

What have you done for me lately?

Appreciation is more behavioral and attitudinal and more likely to motivate positive behavior change. For example, gratitude for good health hardly occurs every day. Appreciation of good health manifests in healthy eating, exercise, and other activities that promote good health.

Appreciation is more contagious than gratitude and more likely to prompt reciprocation; people tend to appreciate us when we appreciate them. It’s also more generalizable than gratitude. Appreciating your spouse and children in the morning gives a positive slant to the day, with less expectation of benign behaviors from coworkers. Showing gratitude for loved ones in the morning is likely to make us sensitive to what other people are not doing for us. Appreciation generates gratitude but not the other way around. We’re often grateful for help from loved ones, without appreciating their efforts and hardships.

Think of your subtle fantasies. Are they more about someone appreciating you or showing gratitude for what you’ve done for them?

Reminders to Appreciate

As relationships slip into routine, appreciation naturally declines, creating a sense of loss and eventual resentment. We can attenuate the loss and prevent automatic resentment by actively looking for things to appreciate about our partners and children.

To form a habit of appreciation, I ask my clients to set an alarm on their phones to give five seconds every hour to appreciate someone or something.

Develop mental images of appreciation based on qualities or behaviors of your partner, children, friends, nature, or objects of beauty.

Create an Appreciation Bank with safe deposit boxes filled with qualities and behaviors of yourself, other people, nature, and creative works.

Finally, don’t focus on being happy; focus instead on being appreciative, then happiness, meaning, and purpose will follow.

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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