Remember the last time you had a good belly laugh? Who were you with? What were you doing? Chances are that you are smiling and enjoying the memory as you think about it. Chances are also that you don’t spend much time thinking about the good things in your life. Or do you?

Negativity Bias and Dwelling On The Bad Stuff

It is likely that you don’t. Not many of us do. This is because of what scientists call our negativity bias [1,2]. We notice and remember bad things much more than good ones. Consider the last time someone gave you feedback on something. What made the most impact – all the good things they said, or the one minor aspect that they felt you could improve?

Or consider this: losing £20 feels much worse than finding £20 feels good.

Bad news has more impact than good news. It’s something that is particularly relevant as we all cope with what seems like an avalanche of bad news at the moment. This all makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint – if you didn’t notice the sabre-toothed tiger behind a nearby rock, you didn’t live very long! But it doesn’t always serve us well in the modern world.

The Benefits of Dwelling On The Good Stuff

As mentioned in our previous article, scientists have identified many benefits to both our mental and physical health from experiencing frequent and intense positive emotions. Barbara Fredrickson, the scientist who has spearheaded the research into positive emotions for over 20 years, has identified that we generally need at least 3 positive emotions to each negative emotion, to achieve what she calls ‘upward spirals’ of positive feelings [3–5]. John Gottman, the famous relationship researcher, identified that lasting relationships need at least 5 positive interactions for each negative interaction [6,7].

Savouring: The Art Of Being In The Moment

A man stands at the edge of a lake, enjoying the moment.

So how do we increase the frequency and intensity of our positive emotions? We suggested a few ideas in ‘Benefits Of Fun In The Lockdown’, and today we’re going to focus on savouring.

Savouring is actively and mindfully engaging in thoughts or behaviour that heighten the effect of positive events on positive feelings. In other words, deliberately and consciously paying attention to good things that are happening, have happened or will happen.

Savouring can lead to:

  • increased positive emotions,
  • a deeper sense of gratitude,
  • the facilitation mindfulness,
  • enhanced engagement and meaning.

People who do lots of savouring have been shown to have higher wellbeing (both mental and physical) than those who do less [8].

Savouring involves ‘taking the perspective of an inquiring journalist towards one’s own pleasurable experiences and then reporting these inquiries to oneself’ [8]. The simplest form of savouring is just noticing when something good is happening and then actively paying attention to what is going on and how you are feeling.

For example, consider that delicious hot chocolate you’re sipping on. As you sit there on that comfy couch, tucked away at the back of the coffee shop, watching the world go by, notice your sense of relaxation. The warmth of the cup reheating your chilly fingers. That deep, rich, chocolatey aroma as you bring the cup to your mouth. The bittersweet taste of dark chocolate and cream and how it reminds you of a certain childhood memory. Now you’re savouring! (See below for an extended version of this exercise).

You can also savour something that has already happened by reminiscing or telling stories about the past to others, or savour the future by anticipating something good, or even dreaming of life in the future.

Setting the stage for savouring

There are a few things that can help you do more savouring and increase its impact on your positive emotions:

Make time for savouring

Aerial image of a calendar and a camera

For example, plan 10-15 minutes each day for a week to take time to do something you really enjoy (known as the Life Vacation Exercise8). Try to relax and switch off from your daily grind for that time. Find a quiet place, where you’re not likely to be disturbed. Ideally turn off your phone and any other electronic gadgets and/or leave it/them in another room. If you find worries intruding while you’re trying to savour the experience, try having a notebook to hand to capture your worries, and then get back to savouring.

Intentionally aim to be non-judgemental

Set yourself up for savouring by intentionally aiming to be non-judgemental (just witnessing what’s going on, not evaluating what you’re doing or how you’re doing it), open (act as if you’re seeing or doing things for the first time) and accepting (focusing on things as they are, not as you might want them to be).

Savour something pleasurable

Choose something to savour that gives you pleasure, and ideally involves multiple senses. Recognise that you will be focusing on the enjoyable aspects of this experience alone, not multitasking. It could be savouring your first cup of coffee in the morning, the light and breeze in your garden, watching small children play – anything that makes you feel positive.

Making the most of savouring

As we’ve established, savouring is a valuable skill to develop. Here are some ideas for enhancing your savouring:

  • Imagine this is the last time you will ever experience whatever you are savouring.
  • Share with others: seek out others to tell them about something good, and also anticipate sharing the experience while it is happening.
  • Build memories: actively store images/memories of what is happening for future recall (“mental photographs”), forming vivid images in your mind for you to remember and reminisce about later.
  • Sensory-Perceptual Sharpening: intensify pleasurable feelings by focusing on certain stimuli and screening out others (e.g. closing eyes, focusing on each sense in turn).
  • Behavioural expression: try actually laughing, jumping for joy, dancing – showing your feelings through your physical behaviour.
  • Be more aware of all the different positive feelings you might be experiencing. Notice and explicitly label specific positive moods and feelings.

Here are some words to consider using when describing your feelings: affectionate, mellow, awesome, energising, uplifting, exciting, empowering, fun, fulfilling, comforting, inspiring, heartwarming, prideful, grateful, happy, pleased, satisfied, content, glad, relieved, elated. You may be experiencing more than one positive feeling.

  • Once you’ve put your feeling(s) in words, then say to yourself ‘I’m feeling …. right now as I ….’
  • Proactively look for things or activities to savour i.e. plan for savouring and make it a priority.

Don’t just savour things that give you pleasure, but also savour things that are meaningful for you. Savouring meaningful things isn’t necessarily as directly pleasurable, but gives you more chance to pay attention to those things that make you feel life is worth living, that you really value.

Bonus: A Quick and Easy Savouring Exercise

Image of a woman enjoying a cup of coffee.

Read these instructions several times, then try the exercise without looking at the instructions. Focus purely on savouring your drink, without worrying if you’re doing it ‘right’.

  1. Sit down in a quiet place with your favourite hot drink on a table in front of you.
  2. Firstly, use your eyes to pay attention to the drink. What does it look like? How does it look in the cup/glass or mug? Are there bubbles, or can you see steam rising from the drink? Is there moisture on the outside of the mug or on the table? Spend a minute really looking at the drink in front of you and anticipating the pleasure you will have when you drink it.
  3. Now carefully pick up the drink, cradling it in your hands (if it’s not too hot). Focus on your sense of touch: what can you feel? How does the mug or glass or cup feel in your hands? Run your hands over different parts of the container – is it rough or smooth? Does the texture change in different areas? How different does the handle feel from the rest of the mug or glass?
  4. Smell your drink. Breathe in the aroma of your favourite drink. Pay attention to how the air moves in your body, and how the smell permeates your senses. Think about how much you enjoy the smell and the sensation of breathing it in.
  5. Listen carefully to your drink. Is there any noise? What if you gently move the drink from side to side in its container? What does it look like, feel like, smell like and what can you hear?
  6. Take a first careful sip of your drink. Don’t swallow it initially, just hold the sip in your mouth and savour the taste and the intensification of the aroma. Pay attention to how the liquid feels in your mouth. When you are ready, swallow the sip, noticing how it feels as it goes down your throat.
  7. Take another sip, and again don’t swallow it immediately. Notice how it feels, smells and tastes in comparison to the first sip. Is it more or less intense? What’s the best part of this sip? Swallow this sip and again pay attention to how it feels as it goes down your throat.
  8. Now try a larger sip (if it’s not too hot), and savour a larger mouthful of your drink before you swallow. Use multiple senses to really think about how it feels, tastes, and smells.
  9. Continue really paying attention with all your senses as you drink. What does it look like, smell like, taste like and feel like as you gradually finish the drink?
  10. When you’ve finished, place the container back on the table, and reflect on the whole experience. What was the most intense or pleasurable part? Were there any parts you won’t do next time? What will you remind yourself of next time you have a drink, to intensify your enjoyment and savour the experience? How did the whole savouring exercise impact your enjoyment?

Make more time for savouring, and you will start to naturally notice more about your positive emotions and experience them more intensely. Which will give you more of those positive emotions, make you feel better, and hopefully make this whole difficult time more bearable.

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References to other websites herein are done so with sincerity and an open appreciation for their content.

References:

  1. Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C. & Vohs, K. D. Bad is stronger than good. Rev. Gen. Psychol. 5, 323–370 (2001).
  2. Rozin, P. & Royzman, E. B. Negativity bias, negativity dominance, and contagion. Personal. Soc. Psychol. Rev. 5, 296–320 (2001).
  3. Fredrickson, B. L. & Joiner, T. Positive Emotions Trigger Upward Spirals Toward Emotional Well-Being. Psychol. Sci. 13, 172–175 (2002).
  4. Garland, E. L. et al. Upward spirals of positive emotions counter downward spirals of negativity: Insights from the broaden-and-build theory and affective neuroscience on the treatment of emotion dysfunctions and deficits in psychopathology. Clin. Psychol. Rev. 30, 849–864 (2010).
  5. Fredrickson, B. L. & Joiner, T. Reflections on Positive Emotions and Upward Spirals. Perspect. Psychol. Sci. 13, 194–199 (2018).
  6. Gottman, J. M. The Magic Relationship Ratio. https://youtu.be/Xw9SE315GtA (2007).
  7. Gottman, J. M. What predicts divorce?: The relationship between marital processes and marital outcomes. (Laurence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1994).
  8. Bryant, F. B. & Veroff, J. Savoring: A new model of positive experience. (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers, 2007).

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