Why the little things are actually the big things
When you think of what makes you happy, what gives you bumps of joy in your daily life, more often than not it’s the little things rather than the big events. And why is that? It’s because we notice these so-called little things and we savour them.
Savouring isn’t just for delicious food, savouring is being aware of positive events and experiences as they happen and it’s a relatively new area of research in the world of positive psychology. As more studies are carried out, more encouraging findings are being discovered. One of the leading authorities in this area, Fred Bryant of Loyola University Chicago¹, has found in his research that savouring can have several benefits including developing stronger relationships and improving creative problem solving, as well as increasing the range of positive emotions you feel and improving your mental wellbeing. Savouring is a form of mindfulness and also plays a role in cultivating a grateful attitude.
There are four main areas of savouring an experience:
• Anticipation – looking forward to an event before it occurs
• Appreciation – being mindful of the experience as it’s happening. This can be combined with another form of savouring – reminiscing – by recording the experience to look back on
• Reminisce – reflecting on the experience after it happened, recalling how you felt as well as memories of the sounds, tastes, smells, that you can remember
• Share – sharing the experience with others, at the time, before or afterwards
Looking forward to an event or experience plays a significant role in enjoying it. Imagine you have a holiday booked in the future. When you spend time researching the area and where you’re going to visit, thinking about what you’re going to do, what to take, and how you’ll feel when you’re there, you’re getting enjoyment from the holiday before it even happens.
This form of savouring applies to more ordinary experiences too. Looking forward to a cold glass of wine when you’re on a hot, crowded train helps you feel more positive in that not-so-pleasant moment. Anticipating half an hour to read your book, getting into a freshly-made bed or tonight’s dinner can give you as much joy as looking forward to more momentous occasions.
Savouring the good as it’s happening employs mindfulness, which is enormously beneficial to your wellbeing. Noticing the delicate beauty of a blossoming flower or revelling in the experience of hearing your favourite band play live, increases how happy you feel, and reduces stressed feelings, without you doing anything but just being aware of the present. There is wonder and awe all around us if we open our eyes to it. Something as simple as feeling the warmth of the sun on your skin, seeing the smile on your child’s face or tasting a delicious plate of food, and savouring it, can significantly improve your happiness.
Remembering a time when you felt happy or energised can help you when life gets tough. Picturing yourself in a past positive situation or experience can bring you solace and comfort, and all it takes is recollection. The more vividly you can recall the memory, fleshing out the details as much as possible, the more positive effect it will have on your mood. Spending time recalling previous experiences, and deriving enjoyment from them, doesn’t mean you’re escaping the present. To the contrary, it can actually give you perspective on current challenges, help you appreciate elements of your life now and increase your confidence.
A study by Sonja Lyubomirsky and her research team revealed the lasting effects of savouring past happy events. The study’s participants were asked to think of one of the happiest days of their lives and replay it in their minds with as much detail as possible. They weren’t to analyse it, just replay the event and enjoy it again. The researchers found that those who performed this exercise for eight minutes a day for just three consecutive days felt more positive emotions four weeks later°.
Reminiscing about an experience with another person has been shown to increase the positive emotions you both feel, such as joy, contentment, amusement and accomplishment². And the older you are, and the more life experience you’ve had, the more enjoyment you can get from savouring memories³.
Celebrating achievements and joyful moments with others increases the enjoyment you get from that moment. Making a big deal out of accomplishments isn’t something to shy away from if you want to increase how much joy you feel. Passing on and celebrating good news, whether it’s yours or someone else’s, is good for your wellbeing.
Money can’t buy savouring
Research* suggests that while money can provide more experiences and objects that give opportunities to savour, unless you consciously savour these moments your happiness won’t increase. And, if your life features big moments like making expensive purchases and exotic holidays, it could reduce the likelihood of you savouring the smaller moments like a perfectly made cup of tea or a beautiful sunset, which occur more often in our everyday lives.
How to savour
• Think about what good things lie ahead for you, whether it’s longer-term like going on holiday or something imminent like an evening with your book and a hot bath. Imagine what the experience will be like, what you’ll do and how you’ll feel.
• Open your eyes to the world around you and look for the good. Nature is a great resource for seeing beauty and instilling feelings of wonder so spend time in a green space when you can.
• Check in with how you’re feeling every so often and see if there is something at that moment that you can appreciate, whether it’s a project you’ve just finished or a delicious piece of cake you’re eating.
• Record happy moments, occasions and experiences by filming them or snapping a few photos, so that you can look back and recall the positive feelings you had at that time.
• Allow yourself time to remember positive past events, replaying them in as much detail as possible.
• When good things happen to yourself or others celebrate it, mark the occasion and derive as much enjoyment from the occasion as you can.
• Share past happy moments with others too by recalling memories, telling stories and reminiscing.
²M Pasupathi and LL Cartensen, ‘Age and emotional experience during mutual reminiscing’, Psychology and Aging 18, 430-442, 2003.
³RJ Havighurst and R Glasser, ‘An exploratory study of reminiscence’, Journal of Gerontology 27, 245-253, 1972.
° S Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness, Piatkus, 2007.
This article was first published in issue 3 of Breathe magazine in November 2016. Issue 8 of Breathe magazine is on sale now, you can order a printed or digital copy, find stockists or subscribe on their website.