When savoring is hard, try this

Year of Happy two linesWelcome to week 4 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. 

Savoring doesn’t come easy to everyone. As we mentioned in Week 1, savoring is harder for people who are less mindful, and for people who don’t enjoy novelty, effort, and uncertainty. Women report that they can savor more skillfully than men. But everyone can learn to savor better.

Below are two obstacles to savoring, and two instances of savoring gone wrong, that can get in the way of our enhanced enjoyment of life.

Problem: I’m too distracted

“It is not so easy to slow down to savor. The pace of life catches us in a whirl, so much so that even highly enjoyable moments, those for which one has set time aside, may be examined too quickly and only briefly encountered,” write Fred B. Bryant and Joseph Veroff in Savoring: A New Model of Positive Experience.

If this sounds like you, check out journalist Carl Honore’s TED talk, “In praise of slowness”:

Distractions can prevent us from trying to savor altogether, but they can also make savoring hard when we do try. Savoring requires a careful balance, a blend of having a positive experience and being aware of it. Sometimes, the mental side takes over and we become distracted by other thoughts. For example, study participants listening to the Rite of Spring music found it more enjoyable when they were simply listening, instead of trying to feel as happy as possible or evaluating their moment-to-moment happiness during the piece. It’s possible to be too self-reflective and introspective.

Although being around other people can greatly enhance savoring, sometimes they detract from it. Cooking a gourmet meal and then serving it to close friends can be an occasion of great pleasure, or it can be an occasion of great worrying. Will they like it? Did I overcook the fish? Why isn’t she eating much? In these cases, practicing mindfulness can be helpful.

Problem: It’s too indulgent

Savoring is by nature a selfish activity, taking the time to focus on and enhance our own pleasures. And if the to-do list isn’t finished, it might feel indulgent to take the time to savor. This is particularly true for luxuriating, like sleeping in on the weekends or treating yourself to a massage. In the extreme case, the authors found that East Asians sometimes try to reduce their enjoyment because they worry that it will be “balanced” by greater pain later.

“Savoring may take a willingness to shed pressures from performance and others’ evaluations and to discard one’s own expectations for achievement and social well-being,” write Bryant and Veroff.

Does this challenge sound familiar? Read the article below to get some perspective, and remind yourself that you’re not alone:

Read “Borrowing Time for Bliss”

Problem: Savoring is making me unhappy

Savoring can go wrong, and it often happens with anticipation or reminiscence. In the case of anticipation, we may look forward to something so much that the actual experience is a disappointment. Reflecting on a trip to Europe, a Thanksgiving vacation, and a three-week bicycle tour of California, students reported being more disappointed during the experience than before it. There’s even a name for this: “rosy prospection,” imagining that an event will be more enjoyable than it actually is. If your life feels like a series of anticlimaxes, check out this article:

Read “Are You Only Happy When You’re Looking Forward to Something?”

In another flavor of botched anticipation, the contrast between the present and the anticipated future is so strong that we feel depressed. Imagining your favorite food during a fast or the weekend on a Monday might inspire more pain than pleasure. Or we might become so wrapped up in and distracted by a fantasy that we fail to fulfill our responsibilities in the present and actually work toward our goals. 

This kind of escapist daydreaming about the future is similar to escapist reminiscing about the past. Although this might be useful at times, it becomes detrimental when we avoid dealing with life. Veroff says that this happened to his grandmother, who moved to America, couldn’t adapt, and spent all her time recalling her comfortable existence in Eastern Europe. Whether we’re living in the past or the future, it’s probably because we’re not satisfied with the present somehow. The article below offers some suggestions on how to move forward:

Read “When You’re Living in the Past”

Many of the themes we discuss in the Year of Happy are designed to bring about more positive experiences. Performing acts of kindness, building our relationships, and working toward our goals all involve enjoyable experiences that could be savored. In that way, savoring is a force multiplier, a skill that can be added to any happiness practice to enhance it. Savoring ensures that as we make our lives happier, we truly feel the benefits of our hard work.

Sources and further reading:

Go back to Week 3: The benefits of savoring

See the whole Year of Happy curriculum

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