November 20, 2019

Learning how to savor the moment

Madison, Wis. — It sounds like the plot of a holiday movie – an adult swept up in the stress of a busy job, bills, chores and other demands is reminded by a young child about the simple joy that comes from playing in the snow.

While it might cause some eye rolls – this old story, again – if we stop and consider a typical day, we may find we’re more like that adult character than we realize.

In the midst of to-do lists, looming deadlines, throw in kids or grandkids, volunteer activities and more, it can be easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle. Snow may even be seen as a hassle rather than something to enjoy. And in reality, our own brains don’t help the situation. All we tend to focus on is the negative – finding time to shovel, messy parking lots, slow commutes, slippery sidewalks. UW Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain explains that’s because we are wired that way.

“We are wired to look for the negative because it was often tied to survival. Our nervous systems evolved to quickly scan and search for threats in the environment. We know negative experiences produce more brain activity than equally intense positive ones. In a sense, our brains are primed to go negative,” she said.

As our brains scan our current environment for “threats” – slippery streets, or even a loved one’s tone of voice, angry body language from our boss, a rude stranger on the bus – those moments stay with us. And they can build up. When we don’t take the time to savor those simple joys, like playing in the snow, we can become less creative, less productive, less resilient and even less happy.

“It can take a full 12 seconds of experiencing a positive moment for it to become stored into memory. It may not sound like a lot, but it’s one reason when we reflect back on our lives it’s easier to recall small negative moments but often, it is only large positive ones that we recall,” she said.

The good news is that we can train ourselves to look for the positive. But it will take some work. Mirgain offers some tips.

Learn how to savor the moment

Savor the past

Maybe you were that child in the snow once. Mirgain suggests thinking back to a past pleasant experience and try to recreate it using all of your senses.

“Think of it like a virtual reality experience. Using all of your senses what do you see, what do you hear, what do you taste? Are there emotions you’re feeling? Focus on those feelings and as you sink into the memory, let your thoughts drive to anything connected with the memory that makes you feel good. Notice how this feels in your body,” she said.

Absorb the good

Savor the moment. When something good happens, try to press “pause” – stop and notice it. Focus on the moment and try to do so for 12-15 seconds – what does it look like, what does the moment sound like, what is the feeling in your body? Use your senses to help your mind create a “snap shot” that you can store and recall later.

“To savor an experience, you need to engage fully in the experience and take in every detail and to appreciate it fully. Then it is possible to bring back the sights, the sounds, the tastes, the smell and the feeling and it is pleasurable. It intensifies and lengthens positive emotion,” Mirgain said. 

Share the good with others

A great way to have the savoring experience last even longer is to share it with others. Mirgain suggests telling someone when you have a positive moment and when you do, expand on it. Doing so will help you “lock” in the positive memories and appreciate the moment more deeply.

Encourage others to share their good news

When someone shares good news, encourage them to savor it by asking them to share as much detail as possible. They’ll get the benefits of savoring and you’ll get the benefits of hearing others’ good news.

“When you encourage others to share their good news in detail, it is a form of constructive responding. This type of sharing benefits well-being and creates a closeness and intimacy in relationships. Savoring together facilitates positive bonding that helps people stay together,” said Mirgain. 

Look forward to the future

Imagination is a powerful tool. when planning a trip, preparing for the holidays, or even committing to a goal, imagination can help increase happiness. 

“One of the happiest times is when we are planning for a trip versus the trip itself. Savor the planning process and generate positive emotions based on what you anticipate doing and what you think the experience will be like,” Mirgain said.