By Caroline Adams Miller, MAPP
Savoring is a key quality that many happy and well-adjusted people naturally have in abundance, but not everyone enjoys this advantage. Because of its importance to well-being and goal accomplishment, though, I teach my clients about the necessity of savoring.
When we truly savor something, like a fine wine or a well-cooked meal, we consciously take in our surroundings and experience our emotions with a powerful sense of appreciation for what is happening in that moment. Savoring also includes the capacity to plan or look forward to something—like a vacation—and enjoy the very thought of the upcoming event. It also includes the ability to look backward and reminisce about what we’ve already done, and take joy from those memories.
When we truly savor something, we consciously take in our surroundings and experience our emotions with a powerful sense of appreciation for what is happening in that moment.
Savoring in the Moment
Walking along the seashore at sunrise while you inhale the tangy salt air might be a perfect example of savoring in the moment, but there are an infinite number of ways to suspend your thoughts and reactions by just “being,” and savoring an experience so fully and with so much enjoyment that you can derive almost as much pleasure from it in your memories as you can at the time that you actually experience it. Anyone who has watched an Olympic gold medalist pause on the podium, after winning an event, just to gaze around with tears in his or her eyes, has seen an example of savoring in the moment. These “mental snapshots” are deliberately invoked, easy-to-access memories in which to bask on a regular basis.
Savoring in Anticipation
People who can savor the upcoming joy of a vacation, a college reunion, or birth of a child are much more likely to be resilient and happy in the moment, since they believe good things are coming their way. Consequently, they act in ways that will ensure the future they envision.
Paul used the process of anticipatory savoring to keep himself from losing hope and heart while hiding behind enemy lines during the Vietnam War. During the many weeks that he was deployed looking for downed American pilots, he would think about what awaited him at home, such as a warm bed and favorite meals. He says that the many hours he devoted to this kind of pleasurable daydreaming helped him survive when most of his platoon was killed. “Believing I was going home, instead of worrying that I’d have my brains blown out that same day, probably prevented me from making careless errors or behaving in a self-destructive way,” he noted thirty years later.
People who can savor an upcoming experience are more likely to be resilient and happy in the moment, since they believe good things are coming their way.
One client who recognized that she rarely had anything to look forward to made a point of building anticipatory savoring into her life by booking daylong meditation retreats in her calendar that would occur several months later, and she posted pictures of the retreat site on her bulletin board. Another client decided to plan the family summer vacation earlier in the year, instead of in a last-minute rush, so that she and everyone else could talk about how much fun they’d have, what they were going to see, and what books they would read as they unwound. These small prescriptions for savoring made a world of difference in these clients’ lives, and helped them to be more present in their day-to-day lives, too.
People who anticipate that they will attend a humorous event, and anticipate the joy they will derive from it, experience profound chemical changes in their bodies, including reduced levels of cortisol and higher levels of positive feel-good chemicals.
Savoring in Hindsight
One of the tools that have successfully raised the level of well-being among senior citizens in nursing homes is “reminiscence therapy,” a form of journaling that encourages people who are approaching the end of their lives to look back with appreciation on what they’ve accomplished, and to share those stories with others. Not only has it been found to increase happiness, but it is also thought to be a powerful tool to help “make meaning” of our lives—a natural urge as we grow older and feel that time is running out. A study at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom reinforced that being nostalgic is a powerful mood booster. Subjects who wrote about a time that they remembered fondly were more cheerful, after the exercise, compared to people who simply wrote about their day.
Researchers such as Sonja Lyubomirsky have suggested that it might be even more positive to replay these types of happy scenes in our heads than it is to write them down. In one of her studies at the University of California at Riverside, she asked participants to either write or think about their happiest life experience, and she found that those who replayed their happiest moments in their heads later experienced greater well-being than those who just put their thoughts on paper. “There’s a magic and mystery in positive events,” she explained, “so analyzing them lifts the veil and makes wondrous events more ordinary.”
Why don’t we always replay happy times in our heads, and naturally boost our own moods? The answer is that negative events are much easier to remember than positive ones. Elizabeth Kensinger, a psychologist at Boston College, says that her research shows that negative experiences produce more activity in the orbitofrontal cortex and the amygdala, two emotion-processing regions of the brain. This activity results in greater recall of a negative event because the greater the activity in this part of the brain, the easier it is to bring it to mind with specificity.
People who have wanted to improve their reminiscing muscle have found that there are many creative ways to do this, while also helping them achieve greater goal accomplishment. Peggy is a scrapbook consultant who helps others preserve family memories, but she decided to create a scrapbook devoted to the accomplishment of her goals, which she uses as a demonstration when selling her products. She has laid out thirty of her life list goals on pages that are decorated with stickers, inspirational slogans, and pictures of others who have accomplished the same goal, and leaves the middle of the page empty until she is ready to insert a picture of herself with the completed goal. In this way she is both savoring in anticipation and savoring in hindsight, a clever way to work on both aspects of getting better at this life list skill!
People who are adept at savoring have been found to be happier, less anxious, more grateful, healthier, blessed with more friendships, and even more persistent in the face of obstacles.
Ways to Stop, Savor, and Smell the Roses, Before and After
Savoring has many profound consequences, and people who are adept at savoring have been found to be happier, less anxious, more grateful, healthier, blessed with more friendships, and even more persistent in the face of obstacles. Here are just a few of the ways you can improve your ability to savor:
1. Have pictures of happy times everywhere.
Scrapbooking is a positive and useful hobby because it promotes every aspect of savoring. Happy families instinctively know how to promote savoring by putting pictures in strategic places, including walls, refrigerators, key chains, mugs, pictures, photo albums, screensavers, and anywhere else you can think of. The new trend of digital frames makes it possible to run a savoring slideshow in your home or office that reminds you of the moment your children were born, the scene of your last girls’ night out on the town, the joy your pet brings to you, or anything else that puts a smile on your face.
2. Learn how to meditate.
Learning a form of meditation that encourages being more mindful of your emotions and actions can dramatically improve your ability to stay focused in each moment instead of being carried away by momentary surges of anger or anxiety.
3. Throw a thank-you party.
This is a clever and successful way to thank people who have been there for you or your family when you experience times of stress, illness, extended travel, or juggling many balls.
4. Go on a silent retreat.
When you remove all distractions from your life, such as television and unnecessary conversations and sounds, you begin to notice things that may have escaped you before, like the crunch of gravel under your feet, or the sharp scent of autumn air. This kind of quick intervention into your life can have a lasting impact and can help you understand the meaning and importance of savoring each moment of life.
5. Talk less and listen more.
When you are busy talking and thinking about what you’ll say next, you are not listening to what is happening around you. When you quietly listen to others, and to what is happening around you, you are less distracted and more able to focus on what is happening, which will also have the benefit of improving your friendships.
6. Institute a weekly savoring day.
In many religions, one day a week, the “Sabbath”, is set aside as a sacred day of attending to God and one’s moral growth. This can involve not using electricity, making elaborate meals, or shopping. The point of a savoring day, however, is to also stop and take time to take stock of your life, be grateful for your blessings, and focus on what is positive.
7. Stop making upward social comparisons.
The happiest people have a way of looking around and, when they notice that they have more than others, counting their blessings. Unhappy people look “up” and make upward social comparisons, in which they devalue their moment of triumph by seeing who has more than they have, not how far they themselves have come! A study of Olympic silver and bronze medalists found a fascinating distinction: Silver medalists were more unhappy because they tended to look “up” and regret what they hadn’t achieved, while bronze medalists looked “down” and saw how much better they’d done than everyone else, which leads us to believe that a “bronze medal outlook” could be a good savoring strategy.
8. Write a holiday savoring letter.
During the holidays, send a letter that records the wonderful things that happened over the course of the year to you and your family, instead of just another picture of your children on a beach or in their Sunday finest. When you receive other people’s holiday letters, take a moment to reach out to them through a call or e-mail and ask them to tell you more about something that caught your eye in the card, and then really listen to their response. The effort to help others capitalize will not only make them happy, but also will reinforce your own social resources.
9. Tell stories often.
Happy families are regular storytellers, which may help explain why savoring flourishes in these families. By retelling your children’s exploits in front of family and friends, and allowing your spouse to replay his college gridiron greatness or her rowing races, you help create a familiar and friendly savoring environment that benefits you and everyone else.
Comment below to let me know which moments you’re savoring in hindsight or in anticipation of…
This post includes excerpts from Caroline Adams Miller’s book Creating Your Best Life, which has numerous footnotes supporting the research cited here.
Join me on Facebook Live on Wednesday, November 29 at 7pm EST. I’ll be sharing the goal setting tips and tricks that I share with my clients—for FREE! Tune in to hear more about the science behind goal setting and grit. Plus, I’ll help you set New Years resolutions that you’ll actually stick with. Also, I’ll be answering any questions you have about goal setting and grit. Hope to see you there!
Photo credits (in order of appearance): Ishan Seefromthesky, Nicole Sanseverino, rawpixel.com, Brooke Cagle, Simple, Kinga Cichewicz, and Annie Spratt on Unsplash.
Copyright © 2017 Caroline Adams Miller. All rights reserved.