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Living Positively

Dr Edward Hoffman
Learn to savor simple moments
By Dr Edward Hoffman

Do you long for fancy dinners and lavish vacations? It’s human nature, perhaps, to dream about the extravagant–and certainly the global consumer-product industry helps to fan our flames of desire for designer labels and exotic vacations. Across the globe, the mass media is also filled with adverts for huge lotteries and give-away contests promising great prizes. The allure is simple: it’s a once-in-a- lifetime opportunity, so don’t miss it.   

But are once-in-a-lifetime, extravagant events really vital–or even relevant–for our happiness?  Despite all the hype generated by such adverts, mounting scientific evidence indicates the contrary. That is, positive psychology is increasingly discovering that little pleasurable moments of daily life forge our overall happiness–and we should therefore increase our mindfulness to them. 

Of course, this idea isn’t totally new. Nearly eighty years ago, the celebrated British novelist W Somerset Maugham wrote in his memoir The summing up: “The passing moment is all we can be sure of. It is only common sense to extract its utmost value from it. The future will one day be the present and will seem as unimportant as the present does now.” Maugham was well past midlife when he wrote those evocative words in 1938, and his hard-won insight is central to positive psychology’s concept of what is called savoring—recognizing, appreciating, and enhancing our small happy experiences in daily living.    

Among today’s leading researchers in this domain is Dr Fred Bryant of Chicago’s Loyola University. While growing up, Dr Bryant was influenced by his mother’s “natural gift” (in his words) for cherishing little joyful moments–and later, in systematically reviewing scientific research, he saw that individual well-being involves more than just reducing stress. For the past decade, Dr Bryant has thus led an international team in studying what amplifies joy–and equally important–what weakens or saps it. Their surprising, essential finding is that we often fail to maximize the good things that happen in our lives because we lack the right strategies–or worse, because we choose the wrong strategies–for doing so.

In other words, we’re constantly short-changing ourselves by unknowingly keeping our joys brief and fleeting: that is, preventing their growth or inadvertently suppressing them inwardly.

For example, a study led by Dr Paul Jose of the University of Victoria in New Zealand asked 101 men and women to keep a diary for 30 days. The participants recorded pleasant events and noted how much they either savored or squelched these occurrences.  The 'savorers' increased their happiness by pausing to focus on the positive event, telling someone about it, or laughing or even yelling about it in delight. In contrast, the 'non-savorers' dampened their joy by insisting that they didn’t deserve the experience, or else complaining that it could have been better or that it didn’t last long enough. In another study, Drs Daniel Hurly and Paul Kwon at Washington State University found that people undergoing tough times gained bigger boosts from savored moments than people whose lives were packed with positive but unsavored experiences. The researchers concluded that savoring is especially vital for our well-being when we’re currently feeling a lack of joyful events. 

Is savoring only a single type of experience? Dr. Bryant and his colleagues have found that four different types of savoring exist—and that we can consciously amplify them all in daily life. These encompass: 

  1. Basking or receiving praise and congratulations, especially from people whose opinion we value.
  2. Marveling or getting lost in the wonder of a moment. Sometimes, travel evokes such experiences.
  3. Luxuriatinng or indulging in a sensation. This can be as simple as slowly imbibing  good coffee or sniffing fragrant flowers.
  4. Thanksgiving or expressing gratitude. Of course, the gratitude should be sincere–and even heartfelt–to be optimally beneficial.  

Dr Bryant and his colleagues also strongly warn against what they call 'kill-joy thinking'—that is, consciously attempting to knock down or even minimize your small delightful moments.  Some people truly become their own worst enemies in this way. Why? Most likely because their parents were role-models in this regard; after all, we typically learn wide-ranging values and behaviors from them. So, never allow yourself to harbor such thoughts as:  ”This happy moment can’t last, what a pity!” or “I feel happy at this moment, but I have so much work to do afterward!” or “I’d rather not let myself get too happy now, because I’ll only feel worse later.”  In practical terms, what does savoring entail? Dr Bryant’s recommendations to enhance savoring include: 

1) Tell your friends about your happy experience—whether an entertaining movie, an excellent restaurant, or a delightful vacation spot. By recounting the event, you strengthen it. 

2) Take a mental photo of the experience. That is, be consciously aware of what’s making you happy and fulfilled, such as a loved one’s touch or a friend’s laughter.  

3) Congratulate yourself for an achievement or well-earned outcome. It’ll increase your happiness. 

4) Sharpen your sensory perceptions. Pay more attention to sounds, colors, fragrances, tastes, and tactile sensations. There’s evidence that savoring is strongly influenced by our senses, so don’t shut them off.      

Guided Activity  

To enhance your savoring, choose two activities that you do daily–one indoors and the other outside your home. For example, these can involve showering, eating dinner, cycling, or strolling in a park. At least initially, make these solo endeavors and minimize your distractions—so, no smart phone!  

Now slow yourself down. Concentrate fully on what you’re experiencing. Open yourself to all five senses, then pick one sense to guide your awareness. What do you notice? What seems new or different? Let yourself feel that time is expanding and enhancing your well-being.  It is also worthwhile to consciously experience savoring with a friend or loved one.  Of course, it’s easier to plan a twenty-minute session of Luxuriating or Thanksgiving together than one involving Basking or Marveling, but be open to such possibilities too. 

Dr Edward Hoffman is an adjunct associate psychology professor at Yeshiva University in New York City. A licensed clinical psychologist in private practice, he is the author/editor of more than 25 books in psychology and related fields. Dr Hoffman is the recent co-author with Dr William Compton of Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing, and serves on the editorial boards of the Indian Journal of Positive Psychology and the Journal of Humanistic Psychology. You can write to him at columns@whiteswanfoundation.org