Researchers define savoring as any thoughts or behaviors capable of “generating, intensifying, and prolonging enjoyment”. When you “stop and smell the roses” instead of obliviously walking on by you are savoring. When you bask in the pride of a friend’s accomplishment you are savoring. When you suddenly emerge out of a frazzled state and become fully aware of how much there is to enjoy in life, you are savoring. There is a basic difference between flow and savoring. Savoring requires stepping outside an experience and reviewing it, while flow involves a complete immersion in the experience.
Savoring is a psychological term that has a neurological equivalent.
Savoring is self- directed neuroplasticity. How can this be? We know that as your brain changes, your mind changes as well. Smelling a rose will increase prefrontal brain activity, resulting in increased happiness. A rush of cortisol under intense stress will shrink the hippocampus leaving less capacity for contextual memory. We also know that as your mind changes, your brain changes. Thoughts map themselves to neural activity producing temporary and permanent changes in your brain. Long-term love experience enlarges the caudate nucleus permanently, making divorce, for example, one of the harder experiences in life to go through.
You can you use your mind to change your brain to change your mind for the better.
We deliberately use our minds to change our brains for the better when we savor. Savoring is being mindful to let go and let in. Just having positive experiences is not enough. We need to engage positive experiences actively in order to eave them into the brain.
The enemy of savoring is a negativity bias brought about through evolution. Predators, natural hazards, and pain (physical and psychological) were big sticks for our hominid predecessors. Of course, we also had the carrots of food, sex, shelter, social support, and the pleasure of each other’s company. During evolution, avoiding “sticks” (the tiger behind the tree) usually had more effects on survival than approaching “carrots”. This created a sense of urgency in our limbic system since sticks had to be dealt with immediately, while carrots allowed a longer approach.
Sticks had a greater impact on our emotional system since they usually determined mortality, carrots not; if you fail to get a carrot today, you’ll likely have a chance at a carrot tomorrow. But if you fail to avoid a stick today… Wham!… no more carrots forever.
The major result of this negativity bias is threat reactivity involving two mistakes: first, thinking there is a tiger in the bushes when there isn’t one (paper tiger) and second, thinking there is no tiger in the woods when there is one. We evolved to make the first mistake perhaps a hundred times to avoid making the second mistake even once. Consequently, our initial appraisals of a situation are often mistaken. We overestimate threats and underestimate opportunities. We update these appraisals with information that confirms them and ignore or devalue information that alters them. Thus, we end up with views of others, the world, and ourselves that are relatively ignorant, selective, and distorted.
The cost of this threat reactivity is that we feel overly stressed and easily anxious. It’s sometimes hard to walk across one’s living room without feeling some degree of anxiety. The approach system in the brain is inhibited so we don’t pursue opportunities, we play small, or we give up too soon. Mother nature is tilted toward producing gene copies, but is indifferent towards the quality of life our lives.
So it is imperative we take in the good since it rights an unfair imbalance, given the negativity bias. Of course, negative emotion can have benefits. Anxiety alerts us to inner and outer threats. Sorrow can open our hearts. Remorse helps us steer a more virtuous course. Anger highlights mistreatment and energizes us to handle it.
Negative experience can increase tolerance for stress, build grit, resilience and confidence, and increase compassion for others. But really…. Is there any shortage of negative experiences?
Savoring can involve a focus on the long ago, the present moment, or future times. Regardless of time frame, the habit of savoring is related to intense and frequent happiness. People who savor tend to be more self-confident, extraverted, gratified, and less hopeless or neurotic. Interestingly, those adept at savoring the present, versus the future versus past experiences derive different benefits. Those skilled at capturing the joy of the present moment, hanging on to good feelings, appreciating good things, are less likely to experience depression, stress, guilt, and shame. People prone to joyful anticipation, skilled at obtaining pleasure from looking forward and imagining future happy events, are especially likely to be optimistic and to experience intense emotions. In contrast, those who tend to reminisce about the past, rekindling joy from happy memories, are best able to buffer stress. These findings are strong enough that I recommend to people who are sad or unfulfilled that they learn to savor proactively; that is, to consciously anticipate positive experiences, to mindfully accentuate and sustain pleasurable moments, and to deliberately remember these experiences in ways that rekindle enjoyment after they end.
Of course, this is much easier said than done. First, like all happiness-enhancing strategies, effort and motivation are necessary for true savoring. Our attention is often brimming with intrusive and persistent thoughts about the past (failed conversations, unresolved hurts, shaming experiences) or the future (to-do lists, plans). Committed effort is required to redirect our minds to positive experiences in the here and now. Second, as we already know, the process of hedonic adaptation leads us to obtain less and less pleasure from initially thrilling experiences. It takes dedicated willpower to reappreciate things.
Willpower comes in handy whenever we are taking in the good. Just having positive experience is not enough. They may pass through the brain as if it were Teflon, while negative experiences are caught as if the brain was velcro. We need to engage positive experiences actively to weave them into the brain.
The basic approach to taking in any good is:
(1) Look for positive facts, and let them become positive experiences.
(2) Savor the positive experience: sustain it for 10-20-30 seconds; feel it in your body and emotions, and intensify it as much as you can.
(3) Sense and intend that the positive experience is soaking into your brain and body…. registering deeply in emotional memory.
Practice these three actions 5-10 times a day. Over time the positive sticks.
Everyday Strategies to Foster Savoring
The sculpting of the brain by experience is memory: the Objective- personal recollections, semantic memory, and the Subjective- bodily states, emotional residues, perspectives, what it feels like to be “me”. Subjective memory is much larger than explicit memory. Our personal resources are imbedded in subjective memory, so the key target lies in the subjective. What matters most is not the explicit recollection of positive events but the implicit emotional residue of positive experiences.
Relish Ordinary Experiences.
The first challenge in using the strategy of savoring is to learn how to appreciate and take more pleasure in mundane, everyday experiences. An abundance of research shows that when people take a few minutes at least once a day to relish something that they usually hurry through (eating a meal, taking a shower, walking home from work) they experience significant increases in happiness and reductions in depression.
Consider your daily routine activities and rituals. Do you notice and savor the pleasures of the day, or do you dash through them? If the latter, then resolve to seize those pleasures when they happen and take full advantage of them. Linger over your morning pastry or your afternoon snack, absorbing the aroma, the sweetness, or the crunchiness rather than mindlessly consuming. Strive to bask in the feeling of accomplishment when you’ve finished a task at home or work, rather than distractedly moving on to the next item of your to-do list.
Enjoy the little things, and one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.
Savor and reminisce with family and friends.
Often it is easier to savor when you share a positive experience with another. Whether you are going to a movie, hiking a trail, or listening to a concert, the pleasure of the moment can be heightened in the company of others who value the experience similarly. Marvel at the present moment with another person. Set aside time each week specifically to share moments with special others.
Another person can also bolster the power of positive reminiscence. Research suggests that using a specific technique to trigger or intensify one’s recall of the past may be successful at producing vivid reminiscence. A common one is the use of guided imagery to re-create the details of a pleasant memory in your mind. You can revisit pleasant times through a scrapbook, listening to a song, or remembering a specific place and time. Let the photos or song lead you down a path of smiles.
Research has found that mutual reminiscence – sharing positive memories with other people – is accompanied by an abundance of positive emotions; joy accomplishment, amusement, contentment, and pride. This appears to be particularly true of older people, who have a wealth of life experience. They are gold mines of positive feelings waiting to be dug out and held to the light of day.
The ability to transport yourself to a different time or place can provide both pleasure and solace when you need it most. It’s an imagination skill that can be honed with practice. Here is how you can do it.
(1) First, make a list of happy memories and positive images. You may use photographs, gifts, or souvenirs. You can also feel free to generate a positive image entirely free of any personal history. A memory can be a wish.
(2) Twice a week try the following exercise.
Turn to your list of positive memories and choose one to reflect upon. Then sit down, take a deep breath, relax, close your eyes, and begin to think about the memory. Allow images related to the memory to come to mind. Try to picture the events associated with this memory in your mind. Use your mind to imagine the memory. Let your mind wonder freely through the details of the memory while you are imagining. Don’t try to be “correct” in your recall of specifics.
This kind of positive reminiscence boosts happiness in several ways. Focusing on positive aspects of past experiences may prompt you to feel that you are attaining your dreams and help reinforce your sense of identity. For example, as you recall past experiences and life transitions, you may come to recognize continuity with the past, gain some insight into yourself, and appreciate your uniqueness. Retelling experiences in positive ways can boost self-esteem and compel you to see yourself in a positive light. Positive reminiscences can produce pleasure and enjoyment for its own sake, especially by laughing at funny moments. Authentic shared laughter is the one time we all know we live in the same world. It closes the distance between us.
If you master this strategy, you will have the best moments of your life available to you, no matter how long ago they occurred.
Replay happy days.
Think about one of your happiest days…. Commencement day (yours or your child’s), the first time you heard the words, “I love you”, the day you brought home a puppy… and replay it in your mind as though you were rewinding a videotape and playing it back. Think about the events of the day and remember what happened in as much detail as possible. What exactly did you (or other people) say or do?
Don’t analyze the day and rework it into something it wasn’t. Try very hard to simply replay it and revel in it. Revelry is a happiness marinade.
People who practiced this one for 8 minutes on three consecutive days felt more intense positive emotions four weeks later!
Celebrate good news.
Sharing successes and accomplishments with others has been shown to be associated with elevated pleasant emotions and well-being. When you or your spouse or best friend win an honor, congratulate him or her (and yourself) in a big, big, way. Celebrate and try to enjoy the occasion to the fullest. While the absence of emotional stinginess or criticism is important when one does well in life, research shows that serious celebration and pride in other’s accomplishments have far reaching effects.
Don’t shy away from pride. It is not he same as boasting. Tell yourself how hard you have worked for this moment; imagine how impressed others will be, especially those who love you. Do the same for your spouse or friend.
Be open to beauty and excellence
This strategy involves allowing yourself to truly admire an object of beauty or a display of talent, genius, or virtue. Strive even to feel reverence and awe when called for. People who open themselves to the beauty and excellence around them are more likely to find joy, meaning, and profound connections in their lives. We need not go through life wearing blinders to everything that is touching, beautiful, virtuous, and magnificent.
Consider the example of Walt Whitman, whose favorite activity was to stroll outdoors by himself, admiring trees, flowers, the sky, and the shifting light of day, and listening to birds, crickets and other of nature’s sounds.
A contemporary of his said: “Until I knew the man, it had not occurred to me that anyone could derive so much absolute happiness from these things as he did. Perhaps, indeed, no man ever liked so many things and disliked so few as Walt Whitman.”
The Power of Mindfulness
Attention is like a spotlight, illuminating what it rests on. Because neuroplasticy is heightened for what’s in the field of focused awareness, attention is also like a vacuum cleaner, sucking its contents into the brain. Directing attention skillfully is therefore a fundamental way to shape the brain, and one’s life over time.
Many philosophical and spiritual traditions stress the cultivation of mindfulness as a critical ingredient of well-being. The practice of Zen Buddhism, emphasizing the clearing of one’s mind and grounding oneself in the present moment, is a familiar example to most of us.
Research has turned to those who are mindfully attentive to the here and now and keenly aware of their surroundings. It turns out that such individuals are models of flourishing minds and positive mental health. Relative to the average person these individuals are more likely to be happy, optimistic, self-confident and satisfied with their lives. They are more likely to experience frequent and positive emotions, to feel self-sufficient and competent, and to have positive social relationships.
So how does one wake up to the present moment? Researchers have developed 8-week courses on mindfulness for those in chronic pain for example. Much relief is gained in this short time, just by learning relaxation techniques, paying attention to breathing through stretches and postures, becoming aware of bodily sensations, thoughts, and emotions. With practice we stay awake to the present.
Meditation is a very personal experience and can be performed in many ways. The experts in this field seem to agree on some basic ideas that support its practice. Here are some ways to attend skillfully.
- Be nonjudgmental: observe the present moment with detachment, without evaluation
- Be nonstriving: don’t be too focused on achieving anything in particular
- Be patient: Don’t rush of force things, but allow them to unfold in their own good time
- Be trusting: trust yourself, and trust that things will work out in life
- Be open: pay attention to every little thing as though you were seeing it for the first time
- Let go: set yourself free of ruminations. This is properly called detachment.
Take pleasure in the senses
Luxuriating or indulging in the five senses in one of the key ways to promote savoring. Pay close attention to and take delight in the momentary pleasures and magical moments. In one lab experiment, people who made eating into a ceremonial occasion, with an attractive presentation, a quiet and comfortable setting, and no distractions (TV, reading material) reported more pleasure and residual positive feelings long after the meal as compared with those who ate “normally”.
In a more serious venue, POWs have been known to meet regularly to share a fancy dinner in their minds, imagining all the details of the lighting of the room, the stiffness of their best suits and white shirts (that did not exist), and the flavors of the food. They would recite heir mother’s recipes for various dishes and correct each other when an ingredient was left out. Many examples exist of people willing themselves to experience pleasures of the mind under severe deprivation. Who’s to say we cannot transport ourselves no matter how ordinary or dull our current setting.
Creating a savoring album.
I carry photos of my family, and other meaningful emblems of my life in my wallet. Whenever I am in a strange place looking at these images never fails to give me a boost. You can create a savoring/memory album that has photos of your favorite people, places, or things… family, friends, pets, famous paintings, etc. One of my clients keeps an album of every significant event, usually music or art or dining, that she and her husband have done over the past few years. She looks at it occasionally. She knows that she does not want it to become like the special photo on the nightstand that has been there for so long it is hardly noticed.
The savoring album is essentially a strategy to create and savor the memories of your positive experiences. It’s also valuable to review the album in less happy times when you’re especially needful of a boost.
Savor with your camera.
Anyone can train himself or herself to use a camera as a savoring tool. Teach yourself to use your camera in a way that enhances your ongoing experiences, by truly looking at things and noticing what is beautiful and meaningful. Don’t just create as many pictures as possible; try to take, print, and frame the best picture you know how. This will make you more mindful, and more appreciative and will lead you to enjoy your experiences more.
Seek bittersweet experiences.
A bittersweet experience is one that involves mixed emotions, usually happiness and sadness mixed together. Such events are usually characterized by the fact that they will soon end… a vacation, a friendship, or a phase of life. When we are fully mindful of things, an impending return home from an overseas adventure, our child boarding the bus for the first day of kindergarten, we are more likely to appreciate the remaining time we have. Although bittersweet experiences also make us sad, it its this sadness that prompts us to come to appreciate the positive aspects of our lives as they are right now. Research has shown that by drawing attention to the transient nature of some positive life experiences it fosters savoring when we are more keenly aware that inevitably such experiences will end.
Don’t shy away from the bittersweet. In some sense, all of life is a bittersweet experience. All good things (and bad things) come to an end, and acknowledging this truth will help you stay present for what life brings.
Although many people associate nostalgia with homesickness, it is actually a pleasant emotion, albeit a poignant one. When you feel nostalgic about a past time in your life, a person you were close to, a seashore you once walked, you may feel a wistful pleasure, a yearning that is both joyfully affectionate, and tinged with sadness as you are fully aware that it is long gone, never to return. From time to time, nurture these nostalgic feelings; they will make you feel warm about your past and bring back cherished memories of beauty, pleasure, goodness, and love. Be careful not to compare these feelings with the present; focus only on the positive and how they have enriched your life. Happy people are able to put such memories in their “psychological bank account” or treasure chests. They experience them as adding meaning and richness to their lives. They do not focus on how the good old days were so much better than today.
Nostalgia is memory with the pain removed. Studies have shown that nostalgic experiences spawn positive feelings, reinforce our sense of being loved and protected, and boost our self-esteem.
Nostalgia can be triggered spontaneously, by a conversation with a family member, a photograph… or deliberately through active reflection. It makes us feel good not only because of the positive memories we recall but because it protects and strengthens our identities, fosters pride, and regenerates a sense of meaning about our lives.
A caution about writing
There is mixed opinion about the utility of savoring the past through writing. Since writing is inherently a structured process that forces a person to organize and integrate ones thoughts, to reflect on what causes what, they help people get past negative events by making sense of them. But you don’t really want to get past a positive event! When it comes to the best experiences of your life, it’s repetitive replaying and savoring of the experiences that maintain the positive emotions surrounding them and enhance your happiness.
Be cautious about savoring through writing; instead, reflect, relish, and share with others.
A final word
It’s possible to overdo living in the present. A flourishing life involves contemplating and planning for the future and learning from the mistakes of the past. One study found that homeless people live almost completely in the present, and observations of Alzheimer’s patients suggest that they do as well. People whose orientation is overwhelmingly present-focused have been found to be less capable of delaying gratification and more likely to engage in a host of risky behaviors. As with anything, strive to strike a balance between absorption in the here and now, and, to think more about the future in constructive ways.
Don Crowe, PhD