Savor the Small Things: The Quick Activity that Increases Positive Emotions, Engagement and Meaning
“There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so”
In these words, spoken in Act II of Hamlet, William Shakespeare captures one of the most powerful, important and frustrating paradoxes of human nature: so much of the quality of our life lies in the way that we interpret it, and yet we are not naturally inclined to interpret events in a way that serves us. Life unfolds swiftly and relentlessly, passing with little regard for what we profess to want and need. We are so likely to be caught up in its passage that we often forget to pause and focus on the many small, beautiful moments that exist: as humble as the way that the light falls in the early morning, or as profound as the way your child nestles in your arms. Positive psychology has developed the intervention of savoring to help us learn how to better focus our attention so that we might bring these positive events into our consciousness. While none of us are able to slow down time, we can all choose to savor: a process that can help us to slow down our experience and interpretation of positive events, building glistening memories, cultivating ebullient feeling, and appreciating what is rather than longing for what might be.
Savoring is the act of mindfully engaging in thoughts and behaviors that heighten the effect of positive events on positive feelings.
This is an act that can happen spontaneously: when we experience emotions, we tend to respond in some way, either by luxuriating further into the feeling, or by suppressing it if we feel it is inappropriate. Consider the last time that you enjoyed a truly delicious meal and the way you might have closed your eyes to focus on the flavor exploding on your tongue.
Research has shown that savoring can improve the strength of our relationship, improve our mental and physical health, and inspire greater creativity. Perhaps most importantly, savoring can help us to guard against one of our deep-seated biases about happiness: the impact bias. This is our tendency to overestimate the impact that events in the future will have upon our happiness. We believe that it is the big life events - the wedding, the new job, the new house - that will make us happy, but it is actually the small pleasures that can have the greatest impact on our well-being.
Ways of Savoring
Our immediate instinct about savoring is often that it must be in the present moment. While savoring is closely related to the practice of mindfulness, we can also engage in savoring through anticipating the future or reminiscing about the past. There are many different ways in which we can savor - try out some of the strategies below to savor the goodness in your own life.
Savoring Strategy #1: Share with others
Seek out other people to share your experience, reminisce about a shared memory, or to collectively anticipate something in the future. One of my best friends does this naturally: every small win in her life is joyfully celebrated with all who might be interested, giving her many opportunities throughout her day to connect with other people.
Savoring Strategy #2: Memory building
Take a moment to actively store images in your brain so that they will be fresh in the future, an activity which has been called 'taking mental pictures' by the television show The Office:
Savoring Strategy #3: Self-congratulation
If you achieve something meaningful or positive, take the time to bask in your accomplishments. Tell yourself how proud you are of yourself! In her book How to Have A Good Day, Caroline Webb shares the story of a woman who sets aside five minutes every Friday afternoon to write down her biggest accomplishments of the week.
Savoring Strategy #4: Sensory-perceptual sharpening
Focus your senses on the specific stimuli that you want to savor, which will help you to screen out others through your concentration. If you have ever been so immersed in a sunset so beautiful that all sound receded, all thoughts quieted, and sense of self faded away, you have experienced this.
Savoring Strategy #5: Temporal awareness
Sometimes savoring can be bittersweet - a beautiful moment that will inevitably pass away quickly. Reminding yourself of this truth can help you to remember to focus on where you are, right now. One study asked college seniors to bring awareness to the bittersweetness of their last few weeks at college by savoring twice a week; these students reported greater well-being than those who tried to repress the thought of the rapidly-approaching future.
Savoring Strategy #6: Count your blessings
Bring awareness to what you are grateful for in a specific moment. Acknowledge your great good fortune, especially if it is the result of the kindness of others. One way that I do this is keeping a document where I write down the small, wonderful moments of each day. I have found that this practice helps me in the moment by focusing my attention on seeking these moments, and I often return to the list when I am feeling down as a little pick-me-up.
What gets in the way?
Barbara Fredrickson, the foremost researcher on positive emotions within psychology, argues that whether we allow ourselves to savor our emotions is influenced by our self-esteem and if we believe that we deserve the good things that happen to us. Luckily, the ability to savor is a resource that can be built over time. The more that we practice, the more that we can move towards a state of being that automatically orients ourselves towards savoring, creating a habit of luxuriating in the positive.
We might also possess beliefs that get in the way of savoring. For example, the most common objection I hear to this intervention is that someone is too busy to savor. Busy, busy, busy: it is the refrain that defines our modern lifestyle. Many days, most of us feel as though we are just barely avoiding submersion in the avalanche of work, responsibilities, duties. Too busy fighting the busy battle, many of the best moments of our lives pass us by: a compliment from a coworker is brushed off, a delightful meal hurriedly eaten at one's desk, or a loved one's joyful news brushed away.
Another limiting belief is the prevalent fear of setting sky-high expectations, believing that if we think about it too much, it will never be as good as we have dreamed. Many of our most dearly-held dreams are ones that are rarely spoken out loud, held hostage by this belief.
Below, I offer a very preliminary list of suggestions. Try these for yourself, and most importantly, look for ways of savoring that are authentic to you.
- Linger over a meal, from cooking all the way to cleaning. Notice how it feels to be completely immersed in the experience.
- Choose a random object in your house and spend some time engaging with it, asking yourself what memories it recalls, and exploring its place in your life
- Go on a beauty walk, keeping an eye out for beautiful sights and sounds
- Do just one thing at a time, and focus on that one thing
- Plan something in your future that you can eagerly anticipate
How will you choose to savor your life today?