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The Math of Appreciation

Why Appreciate?

With all the stimuli of the normal day-to-day, theorizing about efficiency and productivity has almost become a pastime. Going a step further and appreciating what is before us is usually an afterthought; we’re already on to the next thing. The power of appreciation is worth discovering because we can all do it. It’s a shared emotion: “Appreciation is recognizing the full worth of something or someone.” I propose:

Appreciation = empathy * information * action

But I’m jumping ahead.

Any opportunity, discovery, or convesation provides space for appreciation. Having a door held. Debating two sides of an argument. Even learning about a new field. These are spaces for different levels of appreciation.


Enter: Math

So how can we efficiently dredge the information fed to us to distill what’s important?

I suggest the opposite strategy: rather than sifting through an overwhelming amount of information that we receive daily, only consider the requirements for success. Whatever success means. Don’t take all incoming stimuli into account; instead, understand and prioritize the end result and only include the components that are necessary to get there. Sounds simple, right?

Remember your high school math algebra and think of it as a math problem, with a result of z. The fictional components of z are a and b, and just one-third of n. In math-speak this gives:

z = a + b + (n/3)

My analytical brain relishes this ease, adding components to a recipe with guaranteed results. The witch over a cauldron, creating Potion Z. Focus on the inputs vital to the result. The incremental steps to achieve a larger goal.

There are lots of theorized equations that will help create these magical potions. Three of them are below, defining Practice, Results, and Happiness.

In Seth Godin’s new book The Practice, he proposes:

“Practice = choice + skill* + attitude *Skill is earned. Skill is learned and practiced and hard-won.”

James Clear takes a different approach, admittedly with some more complicated math (exponents!):

“Results = (Hard Work * Time) ^ Strategy Working hard is important, but working on the right thing is more important. A great strategy can deliver exponential results. Of course, the best strategy is worth nothing if you never get to work. Zero to the millionth power is still zero."

To set yourself up for the best results, don’t spend too much time strategizing, but don’t skip it either or the wheels will churn without payoffs. Simple tasks require brief strategy timelines. (Families can spend a long time debating Christmas-card-stuffing techniques and experiences, but nothing will happen until those envelopes start moving!)

And Tim Urban of Wait but Why writes artfully simplistically about his Happiness Equation: how this equation shapes generational happiness and has left Gen Y particularly unhappy. He proposes:

Happiness = Reality - Expectations

The products of these equations — Practice, Results, and Happiness — are quite simple and effective. They reframe the goal simply and fundamentally. Practice: how can I optimize results? Results: how can I maximize the way I perform? Happiness: why am I maybe not as happy as I want to be?

The key here is inputs. The inputs help to understand and prioritize; they only include the components that are necessary to get to the result. It overly simplifies the goal.

And yes, to be sure, these are theories, not panaceas for unhappiness or idleness.


Appreciation Simplified

A growing value of appreciation (or an appreciation of appreciation) will make the world happier. Said another way, feeling appreciated brings joy. As does truly seeing something. I think of James Cameron’s Avatar, and the phrase, “I see you.” It’s a declaration of seeing and understanding the feelings and work of another.

So what are the components of appreciation to make it a success? And how can we increase our appreciation?

Appreciation grows as we understand something. This can be seen in the Dunning-Kruger Effect, particularly in the valley of despair, where we begin to know enough to realize how much we don’t know. This is a lifelong process of learning. The deeper we dive, the more we appreciate the depth. Athletics, research, opportunity, and religion fit this picture.

Appreciation also grows with empathy. How can you appreciate something that flies in the face of your own logic? In her book Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain, Lisa Feldman offers a solution:

“Spend five minutes per day deliberately considering the issue from the perspective of those you disagree with, not to have an argument but to understand how someone who's just as smart can believe the opposite.”

Understanding the goals, dreams, and desires of another increases appreciation. It encapsulates having the right attitude.

Lastly, appreciation grows with action. The bigger the action, the larger the appreciation; it’s proportional. Action brings the emotion of appreciation to the world. Actions: a simple thank you; a grand gesture of thanks; a display of understanding the effort.

Empathy, information, and action are the products of appreciation. Multiplied together to account for the compounding effects of each: more information leads to more appreciation.

Appreciation = empathy * information * action

Lean into someone’s world, willingly learn what there is to learn, and make a physical or verbal sign of understanding, and you will strike at the heart of appreciation.