Lessons from Almost Dying: Appreciate the Everyday Awesome

Couple Watching Sunset

“We're so busy watching out for what's just ahead of us that we don't take time to enjoy where we are.” ~Bill Watterson

“Rare as hell.” That’s how my doctor described my leukemia.

The cancer had gotten real aggressive, real quick, and I’d need some heavy-duty chemo and a risky bone marrow transplant if I had any chance of surviving. How good a chance? “Forty to fifty percent,” said my doctor.


As an otherwise healthy twenty-seven-year-old, cancer had been the furthest thing from my mind. Now, every waking thought was consumed by it. But I wasn’t ready to die. I decided to do whatever I could to beat the odds. It started with a list.

One night during my initial stay at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, I pulled out my journal.

At the top of a new page I wrote the words “reasons to fight.” I then proceeded to write anything and everything that came to mind about what made life so awesome and so worth fighting for. Before I knew it, my list was 118 items long.

Reviewing my hastily scrawled list, a number of things stood out. First, I was surprised how much food made the cut. The fact that “bagels with cream cheese” preceded “mom” should tell you something about how hungry and sick of hospital food I was when I wrote the list.

Food bias aside, the people in my life certainly made a strong appearance—parents, brothers, sisters, friends, cousins, aunts, uncles. Finally, the list burst at the seams with life’s simple pleasures and experiential riches. Things like:

  • Gin and tonics (#40)
  • Hiking in the Fall (#19)
  • Tobogganing (#22)
  • Summer road trips (#81)
  • Building a fire (#35)
  • Slow-dancing (#46)
  • Writing (#66)
  • Beach sunsets (#77)
  • Skinny-dipping (#79)
  • Summer parties (#82)
  • Good conversation (#90)
  • The smell of campfires (#72)
  • Wedding receptions (#110)

In our goal-oriented culture that places so much emphasis on reaching the next milestone, it was interesting to look back at my list.

Lying on what could very well have been my deathbed, I wasn’t worried I’d miss out on getting a bigger house, fatter paycheck, or sexier job title. I wanted to live so I could continue to enjoy the little, everyday things with the people I loved.

The Power of Being Present

My near-death revelation call is hardly a new idea. For millennia, philosophers and world religions have been touting the virtues of living in the moment and appreciating the little things.

In Buddhism, the Eightfold Path to achieving enlightenment includes Right Mindfulness: the practice of being completely present and paying full attention to the situation at hand.

In 23 BC, the Greek poet Horace was penning Odes, famously reminding us to carpe diem—to seize the day and place no trust in the uncertainty of tomorrow.

And in the 1800s, Henry David Thoreau strove to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life” during his simple living experiment at Walden Pond. “You must live in the present,” he concluded, “launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.”

Even 900-year-old Yoda had strong feelings about living in the moment, chiding Luke for having his head in the clouds. “All his life has he looked away… to the future, to the horizon,” the Jedi Master scolded. “Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing. Hmph.”

That ancient wisdom is backed up with a growing body of modern research.

In one study, researchers out of Harvard University developed an iPhone app to track the happiness levels of its participants at random intervals.

The volunteers would reply with information about what they had just been focused on and how happy they felt. The results? People are at their happiest when they are living in the moment and focused on what they are doing.

Other research shows that learning to savor small, positive moments can significantly increase your happiness.

Similarly, studies show people who foster an “attitude of gratitude” for everyday activities are shown to sleep better, be in better physical health, and have lower stress levels.

Mind your Mibs

Whether it’s daydreaming about the weekend, brooding about an argument you had last week, or burying your head in your smart phone, it’s easy to find ourselves in a million places other than the here and now.

Furthermore, in our milestone-obsessed society, we tend to look to achievements down the road for fulfillment.

I’ll be happy when I’m married… when I’m making 80k… when my I have a thousand followers on Twitter. We become so preoccupied with the destination that we lose sight of the journey, of the adventure in getting there.

And don’t get me wrong: goals and milestones are important. They inspire us to be better, to try harder, to reach new heights.

But as my list reminded me, as great as accomplishments are, there’s tremendous satisfaction to be found in the little Moments In Between—or “mibs” as I like to call them.

Learning to embrace your mibs and live in the moment is an important way to find happiness on a daily basis.

Easier said than done, of course, and I certainly still struggle with it. I even caught myself obsessing about edits I wanted to make to this article while I was out for a walk, instead of appreciating the fresh air and sunshine.

But I’m trying. And with a little discipline, I think anyone can get better at minding their mibs. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Enforce a no-phone rule.

Sure, technology has the power to connect. But it’s also got a nasty habit of pulling us away from the moment. Commit to phone-free dinners and give your full attention to the people you’re with.

2. Go for a “one-sense walk.”

If you find yourself worrying about the million things you need to get done or obsessing about something in the past, lace up your sneakers and go for a walk. Choose a sense to focus on and start a mental inventory of everything you encounter.

For example, you may choose “sight” and pay close attention to the colours of the houses or the different types of trees in your neighbourhood. Or you might choose to focus on the things you hear, like the birds chirping or the crunch of your footsteps.

3. Make your own list.

My reasons to fight list was a great reminder of all the simple, amazing things around me. Whether it’s making a list of your own, starting a gratitude journal, or getting into the habit of thinking about the little things you’re grateful for while you’re brushing your teeth, make time to regularly acknowledge life’s everyday awesome.

4. Collect memories, not things.

My list overflowed with life’s little adventures and amazing experiences. When opportunities arise to try something new, say yes. If it’s a choice between a new pair of designer jeans or a weekend camping trip by the lake, choose the lake.

More than six years after writing my reasons to fight list, I’m thrilled to say I’m completely cancer-free. And while it was a gruelling journey, it was an enlightening one as well.

It taught me to not pin my hopes for happiness on far-off or one-off accomplishments. It reminded me to live in the moment and helped me embrace the everyday awesome—whether it’s sunrises (#78 on my list), sandwiches (#99) or a freshly made bed (#50).

In short, it taught me to mind my mibs.

Couple watching sunset image via Shutterstock

About Josh Martin

Josh Martin is the founder and chief blogger at Badge of Awesome: a website dedicated to life’s little adventures and the lessons we can learn from them. He lives in Waterloo, Ontario and is the author of "Simple(ton) Living: Lessons in balance from life's absurd moments" and "Going on a Bear Hunt: Five things cancer taught me about overcoming obstacles."

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