Happiness Activity No.9:
Savoring Life's Joys

"My advice to you is not to inquire why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it's on your plate."
— Thornton Wilder

"Parents tell their children to be good, so that they can grow up to be moral adults and responsible citizens. Teachers tell their pupils to study hard, so that they can earn high grades, get into good colleges, and find decent jobs. Supervisors tell their employees to work hard and aim high, so that they can win pay raises and promotions. Senior citizen friends tell their still-working chums that the golden years of retirement are near. And if you're a little like me, even when the present is wonderful, you can't take full pleasure in it, as you're already imagining being nostalgic for it in the future. We rarely seem to live in and savor the present moment, believing that what counts most will happen in the future. We postpone our happiness, convincing ourselves that tomorrow will be better than today.

"Yet the ability to savor the positive experiences in your life is one of the most important ingredients of happiness. Most people truly understand what it means to savor after overcoming uncomfortable or painful symptoms or following a brush with mortality or a major scare. When you have a toothache and it's gone, you suddenly delight in its absence. When you're overwhelmed with terrific allergies that abruptly dissipate, you truly relish breathing freely. After a near-death experience or an alarming diagnosis, you may also feel able (at least temporarily) to appreciate and enjoy the good things in your life, to live each day as if it were your first day and your last day.

"You can think of savoring as having a past, present, and future component. You savor the past by reminiscing about the good old days — your first love, your wedding, the acceptance letter, the phone call when you learned you got the job, your summer road trip, and so on. You savor the present by wholly living in, being mindful of, and relishing the present moment, whether it's having lunch with a colleague, listening to Grandma's stories, shooting hoops, or immersing yourself in a book, song, or project at work. This type of savoring overlaps a great deal with flow and with gratitude. Finally, you savor the future by anticipating and fantasizing about upcoming positive events. This is an element of optimistic thinking. Notably, although it may appear that the past and future components of savoring don't belong in a chapter titled "Living in the Present," both involve ways of heightening and preserving pleasure — that is, bringing the pleasure of the past and future into the present moment.

"Researchers define savoring as any thoughts or behaviors capable of 'generating, intensifying, and prolonging enjoyment.' When you 'stop and smell the roses' instead of walking by obliviously, you are savoring. When you bask and take pride in your own or your friends' accomplishments, you are savoring. When you suddenly emerge out of a frazzled or distracted state (e.g., while talking on the phone or running errands) and become fully aware of how much there is to enjoy of life, you are savoring. This is the slight difference between savoring and flow: Savoring requires a stepping outside of experience and reviewing it (e.g., 'How redolent are the roses!'), whereas flow involves a complete immersion in the experience. Of course, ideally you need not step outside experience too much or too often in order to savor the moment, for after all, frequently asking yourself, 'Am I savoring yet?' or 'Am I appreciative enough?' will ultimately detract from your enjoyment.

"Whether it involves a focus on the long ago, the present moment, or future times, the habit of savoring has been shown in empirical research to be related to intense and frequent happiness. Moreover, savoring is associated with many other positive characteristics. For example, in several studies people who are inclined to savor were found to be more self-confident, extraverted, and gratified and less hopeless and neurotic. Interestingly, those adept at savoring the present versus the future versus the past experience different benefits. Those skilled at capturing the joy of the present moment — hanging on to good feelings, appreciating good things — are less likely to experience depression, stress, guilt, and shame. People prone to joyful anticipation, skilled at obtaining pleasure from looking forward and imagining future happy events, are especially likely to be optimistic and to experience intense emotions. In contrast, those proficient at reminiscing about the past — looking back on happy times, rekindling joy from happy memories — are best able to buffer stress. Although these studies do not speak to whether savoring causes these good things versus the reverse, the investigator was confident enough to provide the following recommendations to individuals who are sad or unfulfilled: 'Rather than merely reacting [sic] to positive events when they happen to occur, [people] can learn to savour proactively — to consciously anticipate positive experiences, to mindfully accentuate and sustain pleasurable moments, and to deliberately remember these experiences in ways that rekindle enjoyment after they end.'

"Of course, this is easier said than done. First, like all happiness-enhancing strategies, effort and motivation are necessary for true savoring. Our attention is often brimming with intrusive and persistent thoughts about the past and present (conversations, tasks undone, problems unsolved) and the future (to-do lists, plans), and committed effort is required to redirect our minds to positive experiences in the here and now. Second, as we already know, the process of hedonic adaptation leads us to obtain less and less pleasure from initially thrilling experiences, be it the view of the snow capped mountains on the way to work, the song of bagpipes in the town square, or the smell of our new leather jackets. With time, such sights, sounds, and aromas simply fade into the background. It takes dedicated willpower to reappreciate those things and stop taking them for granted. The next section describes a number of specific suggestions for accomplishing just that."