“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” ― Mary Oliver, Pulitzer Prize winning American poet
In October of 2007, I wrote my first article for The Good Life, a regional magazine. It was about savoring.
In that article I explained what savoring is, why savoring leads to the good life, and what gets in the way of savoring through a story about my husband hiking. Here is the original story.
Some years ago, my husband was hiking through a lovely forest on his way to Lake Caroline. He was walking briskly, eager to see the lake and have a good time. In fact, he was moving so fast, he was almost making himself sick.
Suddenly he stopped and realized he was neither aware of his surroundings nor fully enjoying himself. Irony crept over him: He was soaking in luxurious beauty, and yet he wasn’t having much fun.
My husband’s story reminds me of some important research on happiness. A social psychology expert named Fred Bryant found that the level of joy we get from an experience depends on a particular ability. His studies reveal that the greater a person’s skill at “savoring,” the happier the person.
In Bryant’s studies, savoring equates to appreciating the positive aspects of our lives. In other words, we become happier as we learn to recognize and appreciate the good already around us.
Many of us wrongly think our achievements and vacations will automatically make us happy. However, based on Bryant’s studies, even if our lives are dripping with success, pleasure, and awe, we might not be able to “get it.” The experience of relishing what we have is what makes us happy.
Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness, and past president of the American Psychological Association, writes that happiness can be increased by helping people to understand and learn techniques for savoring. He, along with Bryant and others, believes that a lucky few may be more naturally talented at savoring, but that we can all do it if we choose.
Take my husband’s hike for example. He was doing something that offered the possibility of joy, yet he wasn’t having much fun. My husband caught the incongruity and decided to make a change. He shifted his attention from looking at his watch to noticing and delighting in his surroundings.
John was no longer solely focused on the goal; rather he was breathing in the aroma of evergreens and welcoming the sight of red and orange-hued Indian Paintbrush. He found more beauty and pleasure by deciding to savor, to truly appreciate his environment.
Four hundred years ago Francois de La Rochefoucauld wrote, “Happiness does not consist in things themselves but in the relish we have of them.” Researchers are agreeing. Learning to savor and fully enjoy life’s pleasures is a huge step in finding a stable source of happiness.
Move up to the present. Researchers have learned more about savoring in the last fifteen years. A few tidbits. Multi-tasking and continually checking your phone are savoring busters (can this surprise anyone?). Being wealthy can also make it harder to savor (hmmm, we can speculate on that). Women find it easier to do (interesting)
A fascinating research study came out recently linking savoring to what at first glance appears rather odd… self-compassion.
Self-compassion is being kind toward ourselves. It involves understanding that we are all human beings who can experience difficulties at one time or another. Self-compassion allows us to simply notice and accept our human experience. This is sometimes called mindfulness. Self-compassion is quite different from self-pity in which one wallows in misery and sees one’s experience as uniquely awful.
Researchers saw that savoring did allow for the pleasant aspects of life to be intensified and maintained. They also knew that self-compassion helped people successfully cope with the tougher stuff of life – losing an important relationship or failing to achieve an important goal for example.
Researchers were curious if savoring and self-compassion were somehow related. As it turns out, they are. Then researchers wanted to know more about their relationship like which leads to the other? Or do savoring and self-compassion share some common skill?
Since the research is new, the answer is not yet solid. It does appear, however, that our attention - noticing what we are noticing (mindfulness) and making helpful attention corrections might be the main driver of both savoring and self-compassion.
In savoring, we purposefully direct our attention toward the pleasing, the beautiful, the unusual and rare, the gifts in our lives (now, in the past, or possibly in the future). In self-compassion we gently move our attention away from self-judgment, isolation, roller-coaster emotions.
We shift toward self-kindness, understanding our common humanity, awareness of our difficult emotions (without getting carried away or trying to resist them), and accepting the reality of our challenging experience.
Though it may seem that much of life is suffering, in truth we have overflowing opportunities to savor. We can begin by ditching our distractions and experiment with sucking the marrow out of life at least occasionally.
It all starts it seems with noticing what we are noticing. We can simply ask ourselves this question - "Where is my attention? Then, if we notice that our attention is not in a helpful place for boosting our pleasure, we can shift by remembering a nice moment in our past, or looking for something in our environment that is appealing, or thinking of something exciting coming up.
We can gently ask ourselves, "Might you want to put your eyes here?" Start with just 5 seconds or so and try to build up to 20 or even 30 seconds of savoring.
According to researchers you will notice, over time, changes in your happiness, mental health (less depression and anxiety), physical health (better digestion and blood pressure, for example), decision-making clarity, performance increases, better vagal tone, and optimal stress levels.
Likewise we can re-direct our attention when we are suffering by inviting ourselves to shift our focus toward self kindness... with a gentle suggestion of "Eyes here."
We can slightly modify Mary Oliver's quote to hold this idea. "To properly pay attention, that is our endless work."
(A good slightly over 8 minute video less on savoring can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VP_7bhtELy8&t=2s )
How might we journey to The Good Life by inviting our eyes, our attention, to look toward helpful places?
(As always, if you are a subscriber, you can give me comments, stories, insights by simply replying to this email, love, June).