Savouring the Present Moment: Mindfulness of Pleasure, Enjoyment and Happiness

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Relax and allow your mind to settle in the present moment. Maybe take a couple of deep soothing breaths to slow yourself down.
  3. 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.
  4. 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’.
  5. 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.

3 Replies to “Savouring the Present Moment: Mindfulness of Pleasure, Enjoyment and Happiness”

  1. On Mindfulness and Meaning

    As an academically trained psychologist yet a layman who recognizes the merits of mindfulness, I am presenting for your consideration a variant of mindfulness practice that induces not just rest, but ecstatic or peak experiences. The procedure is very simple, you can demonstrate it personally with ease. It is the major procedural entailment of the linked book below on the psychology of resting states, an unnecessary read, particularly if the procedure doesn’t work! The essence of my argument is abstracted below.

    Mindfulness & Meaning: A Simple Hypothesis and Simpler Proof

    Assumptions

    1. Opioid systems (pleasure) are activated when the covert musculature is inactive or relaxed, and suppressed when the covert musculature is active (a state of tension).
    2. Dopamine systems (attentive arousal) are activated upon the perception or anticipation of positive act-outcome discrepancy (or novelty) and are suppressed when present or anticipated outcomes are predictable or negative (boredom, depression).
    3. When simultaneously activated, opioid and dopamine systems can interact and co-stimulate each other, and result in self-reports of ecstatic or peak experience.

    Prediction

    Concurrently applied response contingencies that separately induce relaxation (e.g., mindfulness protocols) and attentive arousal (e.g. meaningful behavior) will result in enhanced activation of both systems with self-reports of arousal and pleasure and are subjectively reported as ‘flow’ or ‘peak’ experiences.

    Proof

    Self-reports of peak experiences without exception occur during states of relaxation coupled with the continuous anticipation of high and positive act-outcome discrepancy (e.g. creative, sporting, and other meaningful behavior). (pp.82-86)

    Besides its face validity, the hypothesis also provides the procedural means for its easy falsification. (pp. 47-52).

    My work is largely based on the latest iteration of incentive or discrepancy-based models of motivation representative of the work of Dr. Kent Berridge of the University of Michigan. Berridge is a renowned learning theorist and affective neuroscientist who was kind to vet and endorse the little book I have linked below, including a link to my formal journal article on the bio-behavioral explanation of stress and anxiety published in the International Journal of Stress Management.

    https://www.scribd.com/doc/284056765/The-Book-of-Rest-The-Odd-Psychology-of-Doing-Nothing

    https://www.scribd.com/doc/121345732/Relaxation-and-Muscular-Tension-A-bio-behavioristic-explanation

    1. Thanks for your interesting comment and sharing your work here. Its an interesting theory and I will look further at your articles and books. I like the connection between relaxation for the opiod system and meaningful behavior for the dopamine system. I am a big fan of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and I see a link here between your ideas on the mindfulness protocols for relaxation (ACT would talk about acceptance) and the meaningful behavior (ACT would talk about value based patterns of behavior). I am a big fan of Csikszentmihalyi’s concept and work on Flow which you talk about. Two key aspects of this is relaxed attention and clear goals for feedback in order to access flow states which connects to your thesis. So to me a lot of what you are talking about here makes sense. Best of luck with your work.

      1. Thanks for the comment, and below is another way of making my earlier argument. My approach is based a radical behaviorism, and is grounded in neuroscience, whereas ACT is built upon a methodological behaviorism, and is derived from a behavioristic theory of language, or RFT. Both acceptance and commitment find correlation in mindfulness and meaning, and have simple behavioral and neurological correlates as I outline below. I also have a detailed analysis of flow on pp.82-86, also from the vantage of a radical behaviorism. But if the procedure I suggest doesn’t work, then all it moot!

        So, presented here for your consideration is a new and quite radical explanation of mindfulness from the perspective of affective neuroscience, or more specifically, a neurologically grounded theory of incentive motivation (as per the work of Dr. Kent Berridge of U.Michigan). The explanation is simple, easily falsifiable, and its procedural entailment redefines the practice of mindfulness. Still, it may be wrong. Indeed, a bad theory must not overstay its welcome, and although I provide a granular explanation of my hypothesis in my treatise and journal article linked below, it is procedure that determines its validity and worth, the ease and simplicity of which will enable you prove or disprove my argument within minutes, if of course you care to try.

        ————————————————-
        In 1984, the psychologist David Holmes published in the journal ‘The American Psychologist’ a review (linked below) of the cumulative research on meditation and concluded that meditative states were merely resting. The article was roundly criticized, as meditation was obviously much more than a simple state of rest. Well, the critics were half right, meditation is rest, but rest is NOT simple. Indeed, rest induces a pleasurable or affective state which can be modulated in turn by the moment to moment expectancies that tell you where you are and where you are going. Indeed, contrary to what mindfulness suggests, being in the moment is impossible, for we must always consciously or non-consciously decide upon the direction or meaning of our actions from moment to moment, and this translates into effective and affective outcomes. These concepts can easily be anchored to the facts of behavior and translated into simple validating procedure, as I argue below.

        In affective neuroscience, incentives embody affective states that reflect attentive arousal as mediated by dopamine systems, and pleasure, as mediated by opioid systems. The nerve cells or nuclei of both systems are proximally located in the mid-brain and can activate each other. For example, looking forward to a pleasure accentuates the pleasure, and a pleasurable experience perks up attentive arousal. In addition, opioid and dopamine release scales with the intensity or salience of the eliciting stimulus, as pleasure rises with tastier foods, and attentive arousal spikes when we view an unexpected vista or challenge.

        Dopamine release can occur as a phasic or intermittent response, as when our attention ebbs and flows as a function or our momentary fluctuating interest and boredom. It also occurs as a tonic or sustained response in order to maintain a baseline level of alertness that allows us to go about our lives. Similarly, opioid release occurs as a phasic response when we sample our daily pleasures, and it also may be a tonic response, but only when the covert musculature is in an inactive or relaxed state. When an individual is tense or anxious, tonic opioid activity is suppressed. This makes evolutionary sense, as resting conserves an animal’s caloric resources, and animals in the wild sustain their survivability through the dual incentive of alertness for predators while at a pleasurable state of rest. (as your lounging cat would attest, if it could speak)

        From these facts, certain predictions about behavior may be made that conform with empiric reality. For example, peak or flow experiences that reflect heightened attentive arousal and pleasure only occur when an individual is both relaxed and is aroused by behavior that entails highly positive moment to moment meaningful outcomes (e.g. creativity, sporting events). Dopamine in turn stimulates opioid activity, and the enhanced dopamine/opioid interaction results in an ecstatic or peak experience.

        This observation can also be practically confirmed (or falsified!). Simply elicit a resting state through a mindfulness procedure and continuously couple it with imminent behavior that has important or meaningful outcomes, and the more meaningful, the greater the affect. The underscores the fact that as a resting protocol, mindfulness will elicit a pleasurable state which will scale with the salience of momentary outcomes that in turn can be easily arranged. Mindfulness in other words is not a steady affective state, but a variable affective state, and can be a flow or peak experience, or just a mildly pleasant way of chilling out. It all depends upon what you are looking forward to imminently do.

        For a more detailed explanation see pp.47-52, 82-86 on the linked little book (written for a lay audience) on the psychology of rest.

        Holmes Article
        https://www.scribd.com/document/291558160/Holmes-Meditation-and-Rest-The-American-Psychologist

        Meditation and Rest
        from the International Journal of Stress Management, by this author
        https://www.scribd.com/doc/121345732/Relaxation-and-Muscular-Tension-A-bio-behavioristic-explanation

        The Psychology of Rest
        https://www.scribd.com/doc/284056765/The-Book-of-Rest-The-Odd-Psychology-of-Doing-Nothing

        and at doctormezmer.com

        Cheers!

        AJMarr
        New Orleans

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