What is savoring?

Year of Happy two linesWelcome to week 1 of The Year of Happy‘s month on savoring. The Year of Happy is a free online course in the science of happiness. Not signed up yet? Enter your email here and you’ll get a weekly dose of readings and videos to further your happiness education. 

A clear day in winter, when the sun warms you up better than any blanket could. The drive home after the celebration, when the sense of achievement finally hits you. The moment when you sit down to a holiday dinner with the whole family, the food prepared, ready to enjoy. The sunset on the beach, fading from golden to blue before your eyes.

Happiness isn’t only about having positive experiences; it’s also about being able to notice them, to enjoy them, to prolong them. Any of the experiences above could pass by unappreciated. Savoring is the way to prevent that.

“Time is less likely to fly when one is aware that one is having fun, that is, when one is savoring,” write Fred B. Bryant and Joseph Veroff in Savoring: A New Model of Positive Experience.

Introduction to savoring

Bryant and Veroff define savoring as the capacity to attend to, appreciate, and enhance the positive experiences in your life. It’s the counterpart to coping, which involves dealing with life’s negative experiences.

When we savor, we’re having positive feelings and we’re aware of them. It’s not just the warmth of being around friends; it’s the recognition of how special our connection is. It’s looking around and delighting in their laughter, feeling grateful for their presence, noticing how relaxed and accepted we feel. So savoring is mindful, but it’s not the same as mindfulness – instead of being aware of whatever happens in the present, it involves deliberately focusing on and retaining positive feelings.

That conscious awareness makes savoring a somewhat complex process, yet even children in grades 5-8 report being able to savor the past, present, and future. Bryant and Veroff believe we fully gain the ability to savor in adolescence. 

4 types of savoring

The different types of savoring are as varied as our emotions, but here are some of the most common:

  • Luxuriating (positive emotion involved: pleasure). When we think of savoring, we often think of luxuriating: easing into a warm hot tub and feeling our muscles relax, taking that first bite of a flaky, buttery croissant.
  • Marveling (awe). Some experiences inspire savoring by their very nature. A mountain range that goes on for miles, the quiet sacredness of an ancient cathedral, a Van Gogh-like sunset: these wonders urge us to stop and take notice.
  • Basking (pride). When we enjoy the warm glow of praise or reflect happily on past achievements, we are basking. We only reach a particular goal once, but we can extend the gratifying feeling of accomplishment with basking.
  • Thanksgiving (gratitude). No, not the holiday – in a state of thanksgiving, we’re overwhelmed with gratitude and express it outwardly. It can happen when receiving a generous gift, like a loan given in a time of need, or it can come simply from reflecting on all the good in our life.

The classic song “At Last,” sung by Etta James, is a musical expression of savoring a loved one. She finally sees the blue skies; life is like “a song” and “heaven.” Even the slow, lingering pace of the vocals suggests a desire to extend the joy and pleasure of a long-awaited outcome:

Savoring the past and future

In addition to savoring the present, we can also savor the past and the future. Savoring the past is called reminiscing; savoring the future is called anticipating.

We might reminisce when alone, daydreaming of a distant past that brings a quiet smile to our lips. But reminiscing often involves sharing stories with others, like telling our children about our childhood or telling friends about how we met our partner.

One study asked 180 college students and alumni about how they reminisced. Researchers found that they were more likely to reminisce when feeling sad vs. feeling happy – reminiscence is actually a way to jolt us out of an unpleasant present and into a positive past. Many of the participants also used mementos to recall the past, like old photos or music. The most successful reminiscers were the ones who didn’t use props but instead took a mental voyage into the past, imagining what happened in detail.

In addition to looking backward, we can anticipate and savor a happy future. We might picture our plans coming to fruition, dream of love and riches, or indulge in fantasies that may never come to pass. Anticipation requires imagination, and the more detailed our imagination, the stronger our savoring. Perhaps for that reason, people report that they are least skilled at savoring the future vs. savoring the past or present.

10 things that encourage savoring

Savoring can be deliberate, but it also happens spontaneously sometimes. Here are some of the factors that encourage savoring:

The context:

  • We’re focused. Distraction is the enemy of savoring, because it allows positive experiences and positive feelings to pass us by. The urge to eat, sleep, check email, or do anything other than what we’re doing will take attention away from the present.
  • We just finished something stressful. If we’ve just finished a stressful hour, day, or month, whatever happens next – even just a quiet evening watching a movie – may seem all the more wonderful in comparison. Some people actually delay pleasures until stressful work is over so they can enjoy them more.
  • Other people are around. Not only can we savor our relationships with other people, but savoring something with other people is powerful. They can point out positive things to notice – look at that beautiful building! – and their savoring can be contagious. Sharing a positive experience together then builds the bond between people.

The type of event:

  • A longer event. The more time the experience takes, the more chance we have to savor.
  • A complex event. The more stimuli we have to process, the longer we will be enthralled by an experience. For example, setting foot for the first time in an Indian food market – bursting with sights, sounds, and smells – may encourage savoring. The first New Year’s after having a baby is also pleasantly complex, full of rich memories and poignant anticipation.
  • An uncertain event. An uncertain event – receiving a mysterious bouquet of flowers, watching an incomprehensible meteor shower – can elicit more intense savoring. Because there is something unknown about the experience, our brains seem to attach to it and search for its meaning. As a result, we’re more focused and our emotions are more powerful.
  • A bittersweet event. Perhaps more than anything else, events that will happen rarely or never again inspire savoring – think birthdays, holidays, having a baby.

Us:

  • Our personality. People who are more mindful, and people who enjoy novelty, effort, and uncertainty, may be prone to savoring.
  • Our gender. Women tend to report being more capable of savoring, perhaps because they’re more emotionally aware.
  • Our income. Interestingly, people who are wealthier seem to be less able to savor:

Read “Savoring: Explaining the Happiness-Wealth Relationship”

Are you an expert at savoring, or could you use some help with enjoying the positive things in your life? Let us know on the Year of Happy Facebook group, and look out for some scientific savoring exercises next week.

Sources and further reading:

Move on to Week 2: How to savor

See the whole Year of Happy curriculum

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