Take a moment to think about all the little things that make your life enjoyable. A delicious meal. A warm shower. A catchy song. Do you really enjoy those little things properly? Do you really give them the time and attention they deserve? Or do you — like we all do — often rush through those things trying to get to better moments?
Fred Bryant, a psychologist, has spent much of his research career trying to understand this phenomenon and what we can do against it. He is particularly interested in savoring — the ability to hold onto positive emotions when we experience something good.
And it turns out, this ability can be trained. By conscious effort, we can nudge our brain to create new neural pathways and improve our ability to experience and even prolong positive feelings. A decent amount of research confirms the positive impact of savoring on our happiness and satisfaction with life. And people who savor frequently are also less depressed and more optimistic.
So how would we go about it?
We can savor any positive experience, even good memories. Savoring simply requires us to pay attention and enjoy our experience. That can be the food we’re eating, the music we’re listening to, the comfortable feeling of lying in our bed on a Sunday morning, or anything else that gives you pleasure.
Instead of losing the positive feeling almost immediately, we can learn to deliberately increase those positive emotions in a few simple steps:
- Slow down: When we do the things we like more slowly, we find it easier to experience them fully. We wouldn’t jug a glass of whine if we want to enjoy it.
- Focus on the present moment: To the best of our ability, we need to let go of all the thoughts and worries that go through our heads. What counts is only our experience in this very moment. This part takes time to master but it becomes easier if we savor things we really like.
- Stop killjoy thinking: When we try to savor the moment, we sometimes start thinking about all the ways this moment could be better. Whenever we fall into this trap, the trick is to do the exact opposite. We can boost good feelings by thinking about how bad things could be. For example, if you feel a little pain in your leg, you could remind yourself how great it is that you still have legs in the first place. A weird strategy, maybe. But it works.
Over time, this ‘practice’ even changes the neural pathways in our brain. If we take time regularly to simply enjoy life a bit more, we strengthen those neural connections which are responsible for positive emotions (that’s a gross over-simplification but the essence of it is true). Neuroscientists call this experience-dependent neuroplasticity.
The key lesson here is to enjoy now. We often imagine a happier future and tell ourselves things like, “Once I finish this project, then I can finally relax.” We then focus on something that is going to make us happy in the future rather than the joy we can find in our lives right now.
It’s not a bad idea to think about the future. But if that’s how our mind works all the time, it’s a recipe for unhappiness. So the next time you take a shower, why not fully enjoy the presence for a change?
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