Savoring and Mindfulness
(and How Buddhism and Positive Psychology Helped Me Through My Father’s Last Year of Life)
When I agreed to discuss this topic, I was confident that Ginger knew I was not an expert in either of the areas of this topic (much closer to a novice) although I am interested in and curious about each area. So, at the end of the talk, I want all of you to know that I don’t just welcome but actively seek your help in addressing any question or concern that may arise.
My plan is to give a brief overview of the field of positive psychology (PP) of which savoring is just one element and to then discuss savoring, its relationship to mindfulness and suggestions from experts in the field about how we can make savoring a deeper or more frequent part of our lives. I’ll give some examples and share some of my own experiences with savoring and mindfulness.
Overview of Positive Psychology
The field of positive psychology first appeared on my radar about 10 years ago when I read the book Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman, Ph.D. He was the president of the American Psychological Association in the late 1990’s. He had introduced during that era the concept of “learned optimism”, widely considered a precursor to today’s study of happiness. He described optimism as a trait of most happy people, and found that optimism could be nurtured or taught if people learned to appreciate their strengths. This idea is central to positive psychology. The field has been associated with a significant depth and range of research studies into positive emotions, psychological strengths and optimal human functioning. The definition of “happiness” most often associated with the PP movement and research defines happiness as a subjective sense of well-being (and relative lack of negative feelings) though it is experienced differently at times.
Among other topics studied in the field of PP has been the role of genetics in determining happiness. Based upon twin studies, researchers have estimated that overall about 50% of happiness is heritable, 10% depends upon circumstances (job, home, marital status, etc.) and 40% is under our individual power to control. Studies have explored the fleeting nature of happiness, including what is known as the “hedonic treadmill”, where the pleasure of meeting one goal fades quickly as the desire for the next “improvement” arises. Other research has shown that happiness measures show a positive correlation with longevity and better health. A related area of research suggests that people are happiest when their minds are focused on the present. In a study that involved a smart phone application, 2250 adult volunteers were contacted at random intervals and questioned about their activities and what they were thinking about. They found that people spend about half their time thinking about what is NOT going on around them (mind wandering), and this does not correlate with happiness. Instead, people in the study were happiest when their minds were focused on the activity of the moment and “being here now”.
Another important concept in positive psychology is that of helping people identify and use their unique strong points or character strengths. Experts in the arena of character and virtue worked with PP’s Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman to study and describe these virtues as clearly as psychology has in the past studied and described the qualities that make people unhappy or unable to function. The effort involved scholars, religious leaders and texts, philosophical literature and practitioners of various types. This large- scale effort resulted in the identification of six virtues or core characteristics that are valued across cultures and time: Wisdom, Courage, Humanity, Justice, Temperance and Transcendence. Each of the six core virtues was then broken down into its associated character strengths. A total of 24 character strengths were identified. These 24 strengths are less abstract than the virtues and in their expression can differentiate one person from another. Knowledge of one’s strengths and using them in new and different ways has been shown to significantly increase happiness and to reduce depression.
In 2011, Seligman developed the concept of P-E-R-M-A. The letters stand for the components that research has demonstrated allow people to flourish: P= positive or pleasurable emotion; E= engagement or being “in flow”; R= relationships, M= meaning; and A=accomplishment or achievement. In his 2011 book, Flourish, Seligman describes these as the building blocks of a fulfilled life. Research on practices that increase and enhance our capacities to better use our strengths and to increase skills necessary for flourishing has demonstrated strong associations with happiness for the important character strength of gratitude and for the practice of savoring the positive emotion of pleasure, among others.
What is Savoring?
I am focusing only on savoring here. How is it defined and what effects on happiness has it demonstrated? In his 2002 book, Seligman listed both savoring and mindfulness among the pleasures that enhance happiness in the present. At that time, the study of savoring was in its infancy with most focus from two researchers at Loyola University. He states in his book “They have carved out a domain which, along with mindfulness, echoes the venerable traditions of Buddhism and may allow us to stake a new claim to the lost acreage of the present”. Savoring, for the early researchers and for those today, is the awareness of pleasure as it occurs and deliberate conscious attention to the experience of pleasure. Appreciating the pleasures of life helps build happiness, and this practice is in sharp contrast to grasping for pleasure, always reaching for the next better thing to come along. And, savoring is believed to not just maximize positive emotions but to help overcome the built-in survival mechanism called the negativity bias.
(Insert quote by Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain)
Sonia Lyubormirsky, another world authority on happiness, notes that most people understand what it means to savor after overcoming uncomfortable or painful symptoms or following a brush with mortality or having a major scare. Savoring has been shown in empirical research, she states, to be related to intense and frequent happiness and to reduced feelings of hopelessness.
Moreover, savoring is not limited to present pleasurable experience. Newer studies have shown that rather than merely reacting to positive events when they happen to occur, people can learn to savor proactively—to consciously anticipate positive experiences (future pleasure), to mindfully accentuate and sustain pleasurable moments as they occur in the moment, and to deliberately remember these experiences in ways that rekindle enjoyment after they end (savoring past pleasures).
Mindfulness Compared to Savoring
How does savoring differ from mindfulness? You have likely just heard one of the major differences between them as it has been found that savoring’s positive effects do not rely on pleasure that occurs in the present moment. What is the definition of mindfulness and what effects has it been associated with? We know already that mindfulness is the practice of purposely focusing attention on the present moment and accepting it without judgment. As it also is examined scientifically, mindfulness has been found to be a key element in happiness. It supports many attitudes that contribute to a satisfied life, including making it easier to savor pleasures as they occur. It has also been found to help with engagement (which we have not discussed tonight), and it creates a greater capacity for resilience and the forming of deep connections with others. As if those effects on well-being were not enough, mindfulness is also of benefit in relieving stress, treating heart disease and alleviating such medical conditions as high blood pressure, chronic pain, sleep problems and gastrointestinal difficulties. There is evidence that it changes the brain for the good.
We can clearly benefit from both of these practices if we wish to flourish. One major difference appears to be the focus on the experience of pleasure in savoring. Both practices require that we try to set aside intrusive and persistent thoughts and redirect our minds to the here and now. In the case of savoring, we may focus on bringing the pleasure of the past and future into the present moment. To me, it seems that savoring could be seen as a desirable and pleasurable subset of mindfulness practice, perhaps easier for, and with more immediate effects on positive emotion, in those who are drawn to it, but in no way a replacement or alternative.
Suggestions for Savoring
We are already practicing mindfulness as we engage in Vipassana meditation. Here are some of the suggestions I have found from my reading about ways to practice or enhance savoring:
Single-task and stay aware of stimulation (too much stimulation dilutes the ability to enjoy or focus)
Slow down- (time affluence predicts happiness better than monetary affluence)
Pay attention to the rewarding aspects of the experience (like how good a hug feels from someone you love)
Use all of your senses and your emotions, too, in savoring pleasures
Share the moment when you can, as this enhances your own pleasure
Stretch out the experience for as long as you can
Reflect on your enjoyment
Be active in planning and trying new activities to help avoid habituation
Build memories of past savoring events by mental photographs or physical souvenirs and reminisce about them later with others
Examples of Savoring
I’d like to give some examples of savoring offered by the resources I have used in this talk. To begin, Seligman stated that there are four kinds of savoring: basking (receiving praise and congratulations); thanksgiving (expressing gratitude for blessings); marveling (losing the self in the wonder of the moment); and luxuriating (indulging the senses). If we have time at the end of the evening, you might wish to try either savoring the experience of being here together in this circle (thanksgiving) or savoring a special past event that you can still recall in detail.
Examples from reading: (Two examples-marveling and thanksgiving- from early savoring researchers as found in Authentic Happiness, page 107-108).
Examples of past, present and future savoring:
Past: Pick a prominent accomplishment from the past year, an exam passed or promotion gained, and savor your memories of the achievement.
Present: Luxuriate in a warm scented bath or massage with aromatherapy;
Turn off your cell phone so that you can snuggle up with your kids on the sofa and laugh at the latest Disney movie.
Future: Anticipate the excitement and delight on your children’s faces as they open their presents on Christmas morning; look forward to welcoming special friends into your home for the weekend.
Personal Experiences with Savoring
I’d like now to share a personal experience with savoring, perhaps in an unlikely context. First I want to confess that savoring is a favorite practice of mine, but I have always in the past relied upon it happening TO me…when a notable or amazing pleasure passes my way, I am only too happy to prolong it, engage all of my senses to enjoy it and then reflect upon my enjoyment with gratitude. The experience I want to share tonight is different. I’ll tell you the ending at the beginning: it didn’t start with pleasure coming upon me, but it still ended in happiness.
During the past 6 years, my father moved to and has lived in a retirement community very near me. Initially, he was in independent living but had decreasing cognitive ability, especially memory decline, and that necessitated my presence and some degree of intervention on his behalf for at least a short time each day. After a stroke about one year ago, he was placed in the health care or nursing home unit of his community because, in addition to the worsening dementia, he was left with some physical weakness and aphasia, a serious disorder in the ability to use and understand language. He was nonetheless able to communicate in interesting ways and interesting choices of words that he really simply wished to die……now.
He died last month after his 4th stroke of the year at almost 93 years of age. Because he was a special and beloved father to me always, it was my desire to help make his last months or years as full of contentment as possible. I did not expect him to move toward being especially happy or living a flourishing or fulfilled life, given his limitations, and he did not.
Without being fully conscious of my intentions, but really more intuitive, I used one of my own character strengths, curiosity, to experiment with different enhancements to our hour together each day. This was along the lines of: “what if I took him each day to the rose garden to sit outside”. Then, “what if I fixed him a cup of coffee each day with a delicious additive of vanilla flavored cream to enjoy in the garden”, and then later, “what if I brought him a dark chocolate candy to enjoy with his coffee”. Those were things that seemed to bring him great pleasure, and he never became habituated to them because, with almost no memory capacity left, each day was new to him! As time went on, I urged him to notice what I was noticing, the blueness or cloudiness of the sky, the birds on trees near us, the beautiful colors of the roses. And sometimes I would pick a rose for him and let him smell and touch it. He learned to notice the sky himself and to follow the flight of birds. These were changes that made him appear more content. He smiled more. He began to move his wheelchair near the elevator in anticipation of my arrival each day at 4:00 PM. There were plenty of other activities available and offered to him each day, but he didn’t enjoy most of those. I believe that it was the mostly nonverbal focus on pleasure and savoring it and sharing it with me that made the difference. And I began to feel so much happier myself as these small changes took effect. I savored each element more in sharing it with my failing father. I savored his smiles and enjoyment. I felt pride in seeing my experiments work out and savored basking in self-congratulation, I felt deep gratitude at being able to share this end of life time in such a positive way. I planned new things to try as they occurred to me, such as stopping with him to enjoy the tropical fish tank or sitting in a walled garden near the fountain. Not everything, especially the fountain idea, impressed him at all.
There are many important aspects of this story for which I can take no credit whatsoever: my father’s generally sweet and agreeable temperament, the support I enjoyed from the facility and staff where he lived, the fact that I had time affluence- time to spend with him and to think creatively because his last year of life coincided with my first year of retirement.
Trying to bring mindfulness to our situation played an important role and so did the daily reminder of what I call the “equanimity prayer” (May I learn to see the arising and passing of all things with equanimity). But I wanted to share the savoring experience with you, because in this case, it did not start in pleasure or with pleasure, not even in anticipation of pleasure. It started with some mindfulness, a little desperation, a small amount of equanimity, an awareness of and personal fondness for savoring, and the activation of a personal strength (curiosity) to experiment for my father’s benefit. It ended with shared pleasure and contentment and, ultimately, in a surge in my own well-being or happiness that has continued on during the month since his death, and, I hope will be with me for much longer.