I will never forget the look on my two-year-old son Theodore’s face when he learned to swim during our family holiday last week. We had been swimming with him every morning and every afternoon, watching him gain the confidence to let go, trust that he could float and then finally work up the courage to start moving his arms and legs to move independently in the water. His face expression said it all – triumph, exhilaration, and the joy of being free.
The moment was magic and I wanted it to last forever. But pretty soon I felt my stomach growling and my thoughts turned to what I would make my family for lunch. Reluctantly I left the pool. As I walked away, taking my elevated mood with me, I wondered whether it was possible to somehow prolong the feeling? After all, research shows that experiencing sustained positive emotion can have several health benefits including lowering levels of inflammation and may even extend life expectancy. I wanted to know if it was possible to mentally savor the happiness that I felt? It turns out; there’s a small group of researchers working on answering exactly this question.
Professor Fred Bryant from Loyolay Unveristy Chicago is considered the father of research on the topic of savoring which he defines as the use of thoughts and actions to increase the intensity, duration, and appreciation of positive experiences and emotions. Bryant’s idea of savoring asks us to go beyond just being the moment (the practice of mindfulness) and try to make a positive experience last. He believes that if we have the ability to enjoy and savor positive experiences, then we will live a richer and more enjoyable life.
In one study Bryant looked at the relationship between positive life events, savoring, and happiness. He asked 101 men and women to keep an online mood diary and fill out a specially designed questionnaire for 30 days. They documented their positive life events, the degree to which they savoured those events, and their levels of subjective happiness. When Bryant and his team compiled the information from a total of 2805 diary entries, not surprisingly they found significant relationships between positive events and a happy mood. But what was interesting was that people who savoured the positive events in life experienced a greater boost in happy mood as a result.
This ties in nicely with research done at Professor Richard Davidson’s Centre for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, showing that savoring a beautiful sunset and the positive emotions associated with it can contribute to improved well-being and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The team has recently taken their research to the next level to demonstrate that a brain region called the ventral striatum is directly linked to sustaining positive emotions and reward. In general, people with more levels of activity in the ventral striatum report higher levels of wellbeing and have lower levels of cortisol. Studies like this are exciting because while many scientists are working on understanding the brain basis for mood disorders like depression, the mechanisms underpinning our ability to sustain positive emotion are poorly understood.
While this is all very interesting, at this point you probably want to get to the part about how we can savor the good times and I’m happy to say that Professor Jordi Quoidbach from University Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona is currently pondering this exact question. In one of his studies of 282 students at a Belgian university, he found that happier participants were the ones that typically savored their experiences using a wide variety of strategies. He concluded that while numerous self help books and training programs advocate just one strategy (e.g., mindfulness mediation), his results suggest that we can become even happier by learning a variety of techniques.
Based on the research by Quoidbach and others, here are some strategies to help you savor the moment:
- Behavioral Display – Fully express your positive emotions with non-verbal behaviours such as smiling, hugging or clapping.
- Be Present – Deliberately direct your attention to the current pleasant experience
- Capitalize - Share your good feelings and celebrate with others
- Positive Mental Time Travel - This can be past or future focused, reminiscing or anticipating positive events. Eg; Take a mental photograph of the moment and set the intention to recall it down the track
As for my own little experiment in savoring the joy of my son’s first day learning how to swim, Quoidbach and the other experts would have been pleased to observe me engaging in all four of the strategies. If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll know that I’m convinced by the research demonstrating the health benefits of mindfulness and you won’t be surprised to know that as I watched my son swim by himself for the first time, I made a conscious effort to feel my joy from head to toe and celebrate his achievement with all my heart. I also jumped up and down in excitement, clapping my hands and giving my son a high five and a huge hug, which fulfills the Behavioral Display strategy above. I’ve also been telling anyone who will listen about the experience, making sure to fully capitalize on it and I find myself regularly revisiting the photograph I took in my mind at the time, which ticks the Mental Time Travel box. I’m happy to report that all of these strategies have helped me savor the moment, and have been a great mood booster.
I hope readers have also had some moments worth savoring over the holidays and if you’d like to take full advantage of Strategy 3 and capitalize on it, feel free to share it in the comments below.