How To Like Things
Often in life, you’ll find yourself in the position of either disliking something or just not having strong feelings about it. That’s normal and fine. Sometimes, though, it might be advantageous to instead like that thing instead.
Perhaps it’s a passionate interest of someone you care about, and you’d enjoy having common ground there. Or maybe it’s something you have to do for social or societal reasons, and you’d prefer that it wasn’t such an unpleasant experience for you. In these sorts of circumstances, the challenge is to find a way to like the thing that you don’t already like.
A few notes up front. First, I’m using “like” in a very loose sense, actually meaning something more like “appreciate”. The former may develop from the latter — indeed, that’s the ideal scenario — but we’ll certainly settle for appreciation. And second, it’s important to acknowledge that it won’t always be possible to like the thing at all.
The first question to ask yourself is whether it’s actually possible to like the thing. If anybody does like it, then within the constraints of decency, law, and sanity, you have your answer: yes, it’s possible for someone to like this thing. The next question, of course, is whether it’s possible for you to like it. This is inherently subjective, but I find that you can form a pretty good indication by examining your behaviour in other areas.
Have you ever stumbled upon a topic which had never occurred to you, or which you had no interest in, and after a few minutes of exposure to information about it — perhaps on wikipedia while clicking around, or in somebody’s social media post, or in a documentary on a TV channel you flicked onto — you start to feel interested? I think most of us have. That’s a good sign. It means that you’re open to considering new information and perspectives, and thus re-framing your position and expanding your knowledge. Those are the main tools for learning to like things.
If you’re reasonably sure it’s at least possible for you to develop at least an intellectual or aesthetic appreciation of the thing — whether you’ll ever actually like it as such — then you’re ready to proceed. Then there are three main things to focus on, as follows.
There’s a reason you’re going to the trouble of trying to like this thing, and while that reason may often be entirely unrelated to the thing itself, it’s still the force that’s going to propel you forwards. You should keep your motivation in mind at all times. Remind yourself why you’re doing this, before and during your every exposure to the thing.
Try to switch your viewpoint from I have to sit through another episode of this drivel, to I’m spending quality time with my partner and they appreciate it. Turn it into an achievement, and something to be proud of. Build a positive association with the thing because of its external consequences.
You can almost certainly derive satisfaction (and maybe even enjoyment) from the fulfilment of the motivation, because otherwise it wouldn’t serve as motivation in the first place. As your exposure to the thing increases, you should keep your motivation in sight at all times.
Different people can like the same thing for different reasons, but most people like the same thing for the same reasons. Our culture is very efficient at working out what people like and giving them more of it, so the most popular things tend to have the broadest appeal. Relatedly, people can like things for subtle and obscure reasons, but most people like things for more obvious ones.
If there’s a thing that you want to like, your best approach is to try to like the fundamentals of it — because that’s the bulk of what you’re going to be exposed to. You can absolutely fall back onto minor or intermittent aspects of the thing if you need to, but by nature those aspects present more of a challenge because they’re a smaller percentage of the total thing. It’s much easier to like the bigger parts.
If you’re trying to like a sport, for example, then the big targets are presumably aspects like the game dynamics, rule system, personal athleticism, match atmosphere, sense of competition, and so on. If you can like some of those parts, you’re probably going to succeed.
Of course, you have to actually identify the fundamentals in the first place, and sometimes they’re not obvious. It can be helpful to ask the question why do other people like this? and to take the answers seriously. The internet is not lacking in people who are keen to articulate their passions, and such sources can be very instructive. Go for the positive stuff: why I love X, why Y is the best thing ever, and so on. Some of the best teachers of how to like a thing are of course those who already do like it organically.
Hopefully, that’ll be more than enough. But sometimes it won’t!
After your own motivations, and the core elements of the thing, your backup position is one that’s thankfully pretty easy for most thinking beings: you appreciate the effort associated with the thing. There are several sub-categories to consider:
Work. This is the raw labour, and the time involved, in creating the thing. Even the worst TV show is the product of hundreds of creative professionals. A garbage sitcom has set decorators who poured blood, sweat, and tears into that living room. Every disposable superhero movie has a soaring orchestral score which transcends the subject matter. And do you know how long a book takes to write?
Design. Everything has a design, even the things that are only designed subconsciously. While some aspects of design are implicit, such as how things work, many are visible and available for appreciation. They can be a source of consistent satisfaction and enjoyable reflection, no matter what your affinity might be for the thing itself. Look at the shape and the form of it; the dynamics and the intent. If you don’t like them, you can appreciate how well-made the thing is by those measurements.
Art. Craftsmanship, talent, taste, skill, art… call it what you like. Those qualities which transcend design and dwell in the realm of personal, interpretive, creative expression, or human ability. The unnecessary elements without which we nevertheless have nothing of resonance. These are the qualities which make us emotionally bond with things, and which also convey enormous insight into those who made them or who possess them. As with design, there is also art and talent in virtually everything, no matter how small the details — and the appreciation of art is a universal human language.
Care. This is where people have gone above and beyond to accommodate, or to enhance, or to beautify. It hews close to art, but it caters to the human rather than the elevated. Diligence, inclusiveness, completeness, accessibility, and professionalism are all clustered together here. Wherever there are things that people enjoy, there are always the hallmarks of effort expended in order to pursue improvement, and to broaden appeal, and to remove barriers. These qualities can be appreciated regardless of whatever may have originally prompted their inclusion.
An example from my personal experience might be helpful. Consider tactical role-playing videogames; the kind where you not only have all the RPG-standard stuff like stats and turns and managing your items and party and strategy, but you also have to move around on a grid system, taking account of range, terrain, flanking, and more. I play a lot of them, and let me tell you this:
I HATE THOSE GAMES SO MUCH.
I find them stressful, and the battles overly long, and victory too little a payoff, and the story too intermittent. I find the breadth and depth of options overwhelming, and I constantly feel that I’m missing things, and wish I could just skip every single battle, but the battles are the entire point. I much, much, much prefer Zelda-style action RPGs, with direct interaction rather than issuing commands, or platform games, or whatever else. So why do I bother?
Because tactical RPGs are really good for my mental health. They consume all of my focus, allowing my brain to do its usually-awful thing of running multiple detailed scenarios simultaneously, analysing probabilities and predicting worst-case outcomes, but all without triggering real-world anxiety. Tactical RPGs are a hamster-wheel for my catastrophising, infuriatingly speculative mind. The occasional bits of story are just a bonus.
So I’ve grown very adept at liking these games. I notice the interface, and the quality-of-life features, and the onboarding experience, and the animations, and the combat systems and controls. I appreciate battle transitions, and the creativity and balance involved in abilities and buffs and debuffs. I’m a semi-professional armchair critic of how these games look and work, and I just happen to also play them myself.
When I first became aware of the genre, I looked at screenshots and saw all the statistics and the turn-based battles, and the omnipresent random element, and I thought that looks like a horrible way to spend my free time, and I have GOT to learn how to like it.
Another example. With TV shows I don’t want to watch — which is almost all of them, because I’m really not a TV person — my focus is on lighting design, and shot framing, and blocking. In my mind, I put myself beside the camera, and watch scenes unfold from the point of view of the creative decisions made. It elevates everything, turning any show into a work you could write an essay about. The same is true for movies.
And for activities, of course, I focus on the people. If you’re doing something you don’t want to do, it’s always because of people — usually others, but sometimes even yourself. Keep the focus there, without wavering, and the rest of it becomes a means to an end; just a temporary indignity or inconvenience in the service of a greater gain, which can readily be enjoyed both at the time and afterwards.
As with most parts of life, it’s just a matter of the spin you put on it. The only thing you’re invariably in control of are your perceptions of a thing. That’s where you can find a handhold, and start to transfer weight. That’s where you can re-frame, and maybe see more of what you want to see.
With a bit of work and dedication, you can shift your view, and turn a pain into an unexpected pleasure. I wish you luck.