I’ve just finished the section on savoring for my book on transforming depression into happiness and I found out some facts that blew my mind. Turns out savoring is a lot like compounding interest. Just like you can use money to make money via interest, you can use savoring to grow the good things and joy in your life.
First of all, savoring increases joy. What is savoring? It’s noticing the good things in your life, especially while they’re happening. Looking forward to them and remembering also increase good feelings. But the real pay off comes from paying attention in the moment. Thinking about the positive aspects of what’s happening, tuning into your senses (taste, feelings in or on your body, smell, hearing, sight), showing your emotions by laughing, whooping or making other noises also help. Savoring also decreases negative feelings and depression.
Now here’s the first amazing fact. Even if you start out with a relatively low level of positive experiences in your life – due to ill health, caring for an elderly relative, working long hours, being poor or social isolation – you can be JUST AS HAPPY as someone with more good things in their lives if you savor the good you have. The people who are less happy are those who have fewer positive experiences and DON’T savor them.
I can relate to this because I have a chronic illness that means I’m stuck in bed for most of many days. But I’ve stayed happy despite it, and despite losing my house and career. Reading the research on savoring has helped me understand that part of how I’ve managed to do this is savoring. I made the decision to NOTICE every good thing – write a list of what I was looking forward to, pay attention while it was happening, then write it down after it happened. Plus I told other people about the positive experiences I had. (I also made a decision to deliberately try to have more positive experiences each day, even if it was something small like watching a funny YouTube video or reading a library book.)
Around this time I read an interview with Tom Hanks about his difficult childhood after his mother abandoned him. I was struck by something he said. It was “I learned to be happy with very little.” This became my mantra. I had very little – money, energy, friends nearby – but I was determined to be happy with it. Savoring was a big part of how I succeeded at that goal.
Now here’s the next freaky thing from the research. When I first read it I could hardly make sense of it, because it seemed so unlikely. University lecturer Dr Paul Jose and his students found that when people savor more, the good events in their life actually INCREASE! That’s right – simply being present and noticing the positive events and experiences means you get more of them.
I suspect the reason for this is the increase in good feelings that results from savoring. Happiness researcher Dr Barbara Fredrickson found that when people feel more positive emotions they become more open to new information and to taking action. So maybe a person who savors more becomes more able to notice the positive things in their life that they may have been overlooking. And maybe they become more willing to be active, which on its own increases positive feelings.
The increase in good feelings that came from savoring was found to partly explain why older people who did more savoring had better health two and a half years later. A number of long-term studies of thousands of people have found that those who have higher levels of positive emotions are less likely to become ill with things like cancer and heart disease, and less likely to die early than those with higher levels of negative emotions.
But here’s another interesting thing from the research. Adding savoring to something known to increase good feelings – like physical exercise or doing more activities – increases good feelings above and beyond the actual activity. Simply paying attention to what we’re doing makes us feel better. That’s important, because we spend a lot of time simply not paying attention to what we’re doing and so missing out on the positive buzz it could give us. One study of 5000 people found that 49% – just under half – of all the people they surveyed had wandering minds during a range of 22 activities.
Their minds wandered least during sex – not that surprising! And most during work and commuting to work. Also not surprising. But here’s something that did surprise me – no matter how enjoyable or dull the activity was, paying attention while doing it resulted in as much or more good feelings as thinking about something else. When the thoughts were pleasant, they led to about as much good feelings as the activity. But when they were unpleasant or even just neutral, they made people feel worse than when they simply paid attention to what they were doing. And here’s what really blew my mind. This was true even when the activity was one of the most tedious ones, like commuting to work.
So there you go. Simply paying attention to the thing you are doing is going to make you feel better. If it’s a pleasant activity, the pleasure should be greater. If you think about the positive aspects of it, even better. And doing this regularly can not only make you as happy as someone with lots of great experiences even if you have low levels of them – it can result in you have more positive experiences to savor. Which – if you savor those new experiences – can lead to even more good feelings, less depression, better health and more good experiences. This is what Dr Fredrickson calls “an upward positive spiral”. So savoring is a happiness practice to be highly recommended.