‘The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.’ Albert Einstein, My World View (from a collection of philosophies of notable figures in 1931)
Savouring and mindfulness are two distinct but related cousins. One enduring definition of mindfulness, penned by Jon Kabat-Zin, is ‘Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally’. So, in theory, mindfulness meets pain and pleasure with the same openness, or range of acceptance. Whereas savouring is selectively attending to what is pleasant, enjoyable, satisfying etc in the present moment, and allowing our attention to ‘dance’ between what we are enjoying and how we are feeling. It could be argued that mindfulness meets a beautiful view, pain, a busy London underground carriage all with the same receptive attention. Whereas savouring is going to be easiest with the beautiful view and more difficult (but not impossible) in the other situations. Mindfulness deepens and supports savouring, and often it leads to it. Some researchers believe these concepts naturally overlap and that this was reflected in its historical roots in Buddhism.
Fred Bryant and Joseph Veroff have led much of the important psychological research on savouring, including exploring the emotional and physiological benefits. Their distinction with mindfulness is ‘when people savour, they too are mindful of their experience, but their attention does not remain totally open to incoming or internal stimuli. Instead, the savouring process involves a more restrictive focus on internal and external stimuli associated with positive affect’. They also distinguish two types of savouring where you can attend to the sensory pleasure and the experience without thinking. Or you can engage more cognitive processes, thinking thoughts that deepen the sense of savouring. Other methods they suggest for deepening savouring include: Sharing your good feelings with others; taking a mental photograph; congratulating yourself; sharpening your sensory perceptions (a forte of mindfulness); shout it from the rooftops (i.e. express it with your voice, body and expression); comparing the outcome to something worse; getting absorbed in the moment; expressing gratitude; reducing killjoy thinking; and reminding yourself of how quickly time flies.
Barbara Fredrickson parses savouring into the categories of memories from the past, experiences in the present and anticipatory savouring for the future (there is some overlap with positive constructive daydreaming). She advises to ‘Narrate your experience with a gentle inner voice that truly appreciates what’s unfolding before you. Notice the small details.’ She also encourages a light touch to this process, as excessive effort can decrease savouring as can attempting to hold onto something slipping through your fingertips.
Another positive psychology researcher, Sonja Lyubomirsky, states that ‘researchers define savouring as any thoughts or behaviours capable of generating, intensifying, and prolonging enjoyment’. It’s clear that savouring and gratitude are closely related, expressing gratitude can deepen savouring. And savouring and flow (being deeply engaged in activities where attentional absorption begins to happen) also overlap to some extent. Savouring differs from flow in that there is a stepping outside of the experience to notice the pleasure, whereas flow involves complete absorption, so that it is only after the experience we are aware it was enjoyable. We can savour how good we feel after flow, but savouring flow would reduce absorption. A great way to enhance savouring is sharing with loved ones, reflecting on our positive experiences and talking and enjoying them together. This is something people often do very naturally, but when humans are experiencing psychological distress it can be a behaviour that drops away as we isolate ourselves and the brains negativity bias limits savouring.
Here are some ideas and tips to help savour positive experiences:
- Choose something enjoyable, anything from a pleasant memory, completing a task, a delicious meal, time with a good friend. This can be a memory, something you are doing in the present or a future anticipated enjoyable activity.
- Relax and allow your mind to settle in the present moment. Maybe take a couple of deep soothing breaths to slow yourself down.
- Now attend to the pleasant sensory experience of whatever you are doing or visualising and thinking about. As your awareness settles in, allow your mind to dance back and forth between pleasant feelings in your body and the activity, experience or memory.
- You can gently narrate this to enhance it the experience (as Fredrickson advises), similar to loving kindness meditation practice where you use a phrase to deepen your connection with a feeling, you can say ‘this feels so good, that looks so beautiful, I feel amazing etc’.
- Like many of the practices your mind may resist this. Brains like to stick with patterns and they can look for threats in both environments and our own minds. Sometimes happiness can be threatening to a mind that is not so used to it. Also, if we have not had these experiences reinforced through our life, or put another way, we weren’t well taught to savour things in our childhood then it can be tricky at first. In a depressed state positive emotion can be threatening. Therefore, be gentle, start with small practices especially if you are experiencing low mood, depression or anxiety.
If this is difficult then savour for a short time and do this a few times a day. Let this develop and build over time and its totally fine for ‘negative’ emotions and thoughts to be in the background as you savour. You are aiming to have more of your attention on the pleasant experience and feelings, which are often very subtle, and you are accepting any negative feelings or thoughts. Accept any doubtful thoughts, self-criticism or worry etc and gently keep bringing your attention back to savouring. At first the difficult emotions may be stronger than the subtle notes of pleasure. But just like wine tasting we can develop and refine our affective palette and attention. Some days it might feel the most natural thing and you don’t really need to use any effort to savour – this might be happening naturally. Other days it might be arduous and take discipline to bring your mind back to savouring, but often at those times its when we need savouring, gratitude and flow the most.
If savouring is proving tricky then focus on engagement and absorption in your chosen activity. Pick something you enjoy, or enjoyed in the past and give 15 mins to concentrate and attend to what you are doing (noticing and accepting any resistance from your mind and returning to the activity). Then savour the affects of having been absorbed (to greater or lesser extent) in the valued activity.
Bringing savouring together with painful emotions is a step that is often taught in many psychotherapy models. When you bring the strength of an internal resource to meet the pain from the past it can help us to process the memories. We draw on inner or outer resources to soothe the pain of the past. This is something Rick Hanson talks about with eloquence and clarity in his books including the brilliant Resilient. Give savouring some time to develop and let me know how you get on.