The Art of Comparative Appreciation by Michael J. Gelb

A simple secret for bringing more wonder, awareness, and enjoyment to your life.

Learning the art of comparative appreciation can help reinvigorate your senses, enhance your awareness and increase your pleasure in living. Leonardo da Vinci, the prototypical Renaissance man, believed that appreciating sensory delights was one of the secrets to inspiring creativity and happiness. Leonardo understood that the impressions we experience every day serve as nourishment for the soul and that without conscious attention, it’s all too easy for us to take in the sensory equivalent of junk food. Leonardo noted that the average person “looks without seeing, listens without hearing, touches without feeling, eats without tasting, moves without physical awareness, inhales without awareness of odor or fragrance, and talks without thinking.”

If that was true five centuries ago in Tuscany, it is certainly true today, when we are increasingly subject to the numbing effects of the lowest-common-denominator, mass-market “McWorld.”

The good news is that we also have unprecedented access to the sensory treasures of the world. We can easily, and with minimal expense, surround ourselves with beautiful music, food, wine and art – and, in the process, experience a personal renaissance of sorts. These treasures all enrich the quality of our lives. And we can make their positive effects more memorable by practicing comparative appreciation.

When you listen to multiple versions of a musical composition, or compare and contrast three different dark chocolates or a flight of wines, your mind naturally attunes to the differences and similarities among them. You begin to notice greater subtleties, and you deepen your recall for the pleasurable experience.

Comparative appreciation “engages the mind in what psychologists call ‘deep processing,'” explains Vera John-Steiner, PhD, professor of education and linguistics at the University of New Mexico and author of Notebooks of the Mind (Oxford University Press, 1997). “The comparison process inspires more robust neural activity, more cognitive investment, thereby greatly enhancing memory.”

The process of closely comparing two or more different things or experiences also requires a great deal of present-moment focus – a state of mind that researchers have come to associate with increases in happiness and satisfaction and reductions in anxiety and stress.

The key to getting the most out of comparative appreciation is to enjoy being fully aware of and invested in the experience without worrying about getting the wrong answer. Suspend your concerns about making a proper critical analysis and focus instead on contemplating open-ended questions such as these:
How do I experience this (music, wine, art, food, sensation)? Take note of which of your senses (smell, sight, sound, taste, sensation) are involved. Keep in mind that the more senses you employ, the more complex experiences you’ll be likely to have.

What sensations, feelings and associations does this experience inspire or evoke? As your body and mind respond to each experience, notice and describe any thoughts or feelings you find coming to the surface. Try to move beyond “like” and “dislike” to more precise terms and descriptions. Does the experience evoke excitement, pleasure, curiosity, relaxation? Does it trigger memories or call images to mind? Contrast the impressions you get from this experience with those evoked by the other items you’re comparing.

Which of these things do I prefer, and why? Very often, you’ll find that you have a strong preference for one or two of the compared items – in which case, you may learn some things about yourself. (Keep in mind, though, your tastes are likely to evolve as you continue with your comparative appreciation exercises.) Other times, you may feel ambivalent, or incapable of picking a favorite. That’s fine, too. It’s not a contest. The magic happens during the process of the comparative appreciation, not in the outcome.

The beauty of all these questions is that they have no wrong answers. As we free ourselves from the fear of saying something wrong or embarrassing, we allow ourselves to access deeper appreciation and enjoyment. We refine our senses and nurture our latent creativity. Best of all, when approaching experiences with appreciative inquiry, we also tend to enjoy higher levels of pleasure, the neurological and biochemical effects of which trigger mood-brightening and energizing endorphins.

Exquisite Comparisons

Try one or more of the exercises below.
Choose a time and place that allows you to focus your attention. You can enhance your experience further by recording your impressions in a notebook or sharing them with a friend.

MUSIC

Find a piece of music that you consider uplifting and inspiring. Seek out renditions performed by different artists, or if it is an orchestral piece, you can listen to the music played by the same orchestra but with different conductors.

Here are a few suggestions to help you get started:

Multiple Mozart. Compare at least two versions of the exquisite Mozart Concerto for Flute, Harp and Orchestra in C, K. 299, second movement, Andantino. (Renditions by the London Symphony Orchestra and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe are easy to find.)

Beethoven to Brahms. Listen to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. For a revealing study in contrasting styles, compare the version conducted by Leonard Bernstein with the one conducted by Herbert von Karajan. It’s the same incredible music, but the differing interpretations will make it easy to deepen your appreciation of this transcendent work.

After you spend some time with Beethoven, listen to Brahms’s Symphony no. 1. Compare the version conducted by Claudio Abbado with the one led by Karajan (both with the Berlin Philharmonic).

After you’ve enjoyed Beethoven and Brahms individually, listen to Beethoven’s Ninth and then listen to the Brahms piece. Brahms aimed to pay tribute to the genius of Beethoven while crafting his own original masterpiece. What similarities can you discern between the two works?

WINE

Find a type of wine that you enjoy – Pinot Noir, for instance – and then get two or more bottles from the same year but from different vineyards, regions or producers. For example, compare a great Oregon Pinot Noir with a wonderful red Burgundy from the fantastic ( in both places!) 2012 vintage. You can make this exercise more fun, and more affordable, by sharing the cost with a group of friends. As you compare the wines made from the same grape in the same year, you’ll enjoy noticing the expressions of each wine’s unique microclimate, soil and wine-making style.

ART

The art appreciation equivalent of a horizontal wine tasting is the comparison of two artists from the same period of time, such as Manet and Monet. Both artists were born in Paris – Manet on Jan. 23, 1832; Monet on Nov. 14, 1840 – and they each played an important role in the evolution of Impressionism. They were friends and admired one another’s work, but their styles are dramatically different.

Here are paintings to inspire you to compare their styles and then share your impressions:

• Monet: Haystacks (Monet’s comparative study of the light falling on haystacks at different times of the day), The Water Lily Pond, and Impression, Sunrise.
• Manet: The Absinthe Drinker, Olympia and Luncheon on the Grass

CHOCOLATE

For a delicious and affordable treat, buy small single bars (or a single chocolate) of three different intensities from an artisanal chocolate maker. You might start with Scharffen Berger (62 percent, 70 percent and 82 percent cacao content) or Theo (look for their Origin signature line; 74 percent, 75 percent and 84 percent cacao). Then enjoy a delicious comparative tasting, chewing slowly and savoring the aroma, texture and flavor of each bite. Take a few moments to appreciate the aftertaste, too: Throughout the tasting cycle, great chocolate expresses the unique properties of the soil and microclimate where it was cultivated.

As you explore the cacao percentage that you prefer, you can begin comparing chocolates from different producers with the same cacao percentage. For advanced appreciation, you can try chocolate from single-origin beans from different producers or you can create a theme around chocolates from different countries, such as Madagascar, Ghana, Indonesia or Venezuela.

FLOWERS

Buy a few different kinds of roses, tulips, orchids or whatever flowers you like.  Spend a few minutes, preferably with a loved one, describing the colors, scents and textures and the impressions they evoke.

Of course, the delights you can compare are limitless. Try anything from apples (what’s the difference in scent, taste and texture between McIntosh, Cortland and Fuji?) to essential oils (enjoy a comparison of eucalyptus, lavender and rose).

As you explore the comparative appreciation of sensory delights, you will discover a simple secret for bringing more wonder, awareness and enjoyment into your everyday life.

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