Written by : Jan Stanley

The Science of Savoring

Learn how to amplify the positive moments in your life.

Attractive senior woman savoring the moment standing with her eyes closed and head tilted back with a serene expression

Learn how to amplify the positive moments in your life.

Sariah Daine has mastered the art of savoring everyday moments.

“I’m looking at the clouds hanging delightfully in this beautiful, blue sky,” noted the artist and grandmother from Madison, Wisconsin, one recent morning. “The air is crisp and smells fresh.”

It hasn’t always been this way for Sariah, who has had more than her fair share of life challenges. In recent years she lost her parents, suffered repeated heart issues and had to adjust to living alone on a fixed income. But it is her grandchildren and their health problems that affect her most deeply.

“I could spend my entire day worried and depressed over my grandson’s lingering medical issues,” Sariah says about her youngest grandson, who was injured while deployed overseas in the military. “But I’ve learned that I need to be at my best to be able to care for my family and friends.”

Now Sariah makes a conscious choice each day to savor good things as a way to balance out life’s difficulties. She’s a good example of what many scientists are now documenting—that savoring our positive experiences is a key to a happy life.

Coping and Savoring

Savoring is the capacity to notice, appreciate and intensify the positive aspects of our lives. Knowing how to cope with negative events and savor positive ones are two sides of the coin of life experiences. Coping skills help diminish the effects of painful moments, while savoring helps amplify the beauty of joyful ones. Both are essential to living a happy life.

While coping strategies have been studied for decades, positive psychologists and scientists who study happiness are now exploring techniques that allow us to linger and luxuriate in positive experiences. When we savor good times, we allow ourselves to sink into the sweet feeling of positive emotions like joy, love, gratitude and serenity. Positive emotions have been shown to, among other things, increase creativity, improve our sleep and even strengthen our immune systems.

“Savoring can help us counteract the natural human tendency to focus more of our attention on negative things in our lives than on positive things,” says Fred Bryant, Ph.D., of Loyola University, who co-authored Savoring: A New Model of Positive Experience with Joseph Veroff, Ph.D.

Savoring the good times multiplies the joy in our lives in two ways: by diminishing the space in our minds devoted to negative thoughts and by amplifying the effects of positive thoughts and feelings.

With practice, we can become better at savoring, immersing ourselves ever more deeply in the sunshine of positive experiences. We can create what might be called a savoring mindset. “The key is to not miss the opportunities to savor when they arise,” Fred says.

Savoring Everyday Moments

“We must not make the mistake of waiting until we have no negative experience in our lives to begin savoring,” Fred says. “In this world, and in our daily lives, we will have tribulation, and it will not disappear. Our challenge is to prioritize savoring, even in the face of adversity—indeed especially in the face of adversity—for that is when we need it most, to help counterbalance the negative effects of stress and suffering.” Sariah is a good example of doing just that.

This means we don’t need to wait for the next big thing to amplify our positive emotions. We can linger in the happiness associated with being in nature, watching our children play or eating a favorite meal. That’s something we can do at any time, any place.

Fully experiencing our positive emotions can have far-reaching and long-lasting benefits. Positive emotions are more than simply feel-good moments, according to Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., a psychologist who studies emotions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She considers each positive emotion a contribution to a positivity savings account.  

“Positive emotions, although fleeting, accumulate and compound over time in ways that incrementally build people’s enduring resources,” she writes in “The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology: The Broaden and Build Theory of Positive Emotions,” which was published in the journal American Psychologist.

Savoring helps intensify and expand our connection to positive emotions. People who frequently experience positive emotions are more resilient, resourceful and more likely to form close ties with other people. In addition, they are more likely to function at optimal levels in their lives, no matter how they choose to spend their time. 

We build up resources by savoring good times, and we can draw upon these resources when we encounter difficulties in the days ahead.

The Social Side of Savoring

When we communicate and celebrate our positive experience with others, we are using a social savoring strategy that psychologists call capitalizing. After we’ve enjoyed an experience, we can capitalize on it by reliving the positive emotions as we share details with others. Of course, we can share the joy with others in the moment, too.

Research from Shelly Gable, Ph.D., at the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that asking others about their good news and listening closely as they retell stories allow them to bask in the glow of that positive experience.

It helps them reconnect with the experience and the uplifting emotions that went with it, and it also helps people asking questions experience positive emotions as they help others savor memories. And, if you savor together regularly, Shelly found, it strengthens the relationship.

Savoring the Past, Present and Future

As it turns out, savoring isn’t just for the present moment. Like most people, you may have found that you had more fun planning your vacation or reminiscing about it than you had when you were actually on the vacation! You’re not alone; scientists say that savoring can be divided into three time-related categories: anticipatory savoring (leading up to an event), experiential savoring (in the moment) and reminiscent savoring (remembering good times and the positive emotions that accompanied them).

Researcher Jordi Quoidbach, Ph.D., of the Barcelona Graduate School of Economics describes experiential savoring as “a mindful approach in which one focuses attention on the present moment and systematically suppresses thoughts unrelated to the current experience.” In direct contrast, Jordi describes anticipatory and reminiscent savoring techniques as removing oneself from the moment. This type of savoring, he says, “consists of stepping back from the present experience to mentally travel through time to remember or anticipate positive personal events.”

In a study published in Personality and Individual Differences, Jordi reports that emotional well-being—although experienced differently—increased with each of the three types of time-related savoring.

Anticipatory savoring takes place before an event. In our vacation example, it might involve watching films set in our vacation spot or collecting maps or guidebooks to plan an itinerary. When we actively plan or imagine good times ahead, we are practicing anticipatory savoring.

Experiential savoring occurs in the here and now. It involves being mindful of good things happening as you enjoy a fancy breakfast or the smell of the sea while on vacation. It also happens on a daily basis as you look for things and experiences in your life to appreciate and savor.

The key is to not put too much pressure on yourself to make the most of each moment. Simply notice the sights, sounds and smells around you. What parts of this moment are most enjoyable?

Reminiscent savoring happens after the fact, when we relive positive moments. We might just drift off

into our memories, or we can create activities to help. Looking at photographs or telling friends about our trip is a great way to ramp up reminiscent savoring. One way to enhance reminiscent savoring is to plan a positive activity at the end of your event. This taps into what scientists call peak-end theory, or the finding that we tend to remember the high point (peak) of an experience as well as the way it ended. To the extent possible, try to plan a favorite activity at the end of your event to help you leverage the peak-end theory. You can use this approach to successfully end meetings, parties or even a workout.

Don’t Be a Wet Blanket

Sometimes we short-circuit our ability to enjoy good times, something scientists refer to as “dampening.” Instead of lingering in good feelings, we cut them short. We dampen our positive emotions when we suppress or minimize good feelings, distract ourselves away from an enjoyable moment, find fault or see only the negative in an otherwise positive situation. Dampening our positive experiences can be seen as an opposite to savoring them.

“Such individual differences in the propensity to savor or dampen positive emotions may play an important role for one’s overall well-being,” says Jordi, relating it back to Barbara’s research. “Indeed, the broaden-and-build theory suggests that the cultivation of positive emotions helps to build lasting resources that, in turn, enhance life satisfaction, increase the likelihood of experiencing future positive emotions, and foster resilience to negative ones.”

Sometimes dampening positive emotions is appropriate. If you’ve just been promoted and your co-workers weren’t, for example, postponing any celebratory savoring might be in order.

Don’t Wait, Savor Today

Many of us fall into the trap of thinking that our happiness is just around the corner. Savoring is an active way to notice and enjoy good things already present in our lives.

Sure, there are times when we’ll take big steps to change and improve. We may decide to move to exciting new places or to leave jobs that we no longer find rewarding. But to be truly happy, we need not necessarily make big changes. It could be as simple as changing our perspective, such as Sariah’s decision to focus on the current blessings in her life rather than being overwhelmed by its challenges.

“Positive events may set the stage for people to experience savoring. But positive events alone are not enough to bring about happiness. People need to be able to attend to and appreciate” those positive feelings, Fred says.

This article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of Live Happy magazine.
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