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Savouring – initial thoughts

Back in my post of January 5, I mentioned that I was looking at Sonja Lyubomirsky's book "The How of Happiness". On pages 73 to 77 of the book she describes a ‘person-fit' exercise to help readers decide which happiness-boosting activities to work with initially. I came up with a whole load that appealed to me, and that mostly I was somewhat familiar with. There are a couple of activities that focus particularly on being present - on ‘flow' and on ‘savouring' (spelt ‘savoring' in this American book). Flow I know a fair amount about and, unsurprisingly, Wikipedia has an interesting and helpful article on flow. At present however there is no corresponding article on ‘savoring' or ‘savouring'. This reflects the fact that savouring is less researched and less well understood than flow. In positive psychology, the key current text on savouring is the recent book by Fred Bryant and Joseph Veroff - "Savoring: a New Model of Positive Experience" (see below).

They describe savoring as " ... the capacity to attend to, appreciate, and enhance the positive experiences in one's life." They go on to say "With that capacity, people can better enjoy love, truth, beauty, community, God, sexuality, spirituality, or whatever preferred values and individual goals they deem important. Thus, we think savoring is a boon to positive fulfillment in life." They emphasise that they see savoring as related to but different from constructs like mindfulness, meditation, aesthetic responses and flow. In getting my head round the concept of savouring, I found it particularly helpful how Bryant and Veroff compare and contrast coping and savouring. Researchers have long distinguished difficult life events, methods of coping with those events, and how well the coping attempts then protect against painful states like anxiety and depression. We know that if the same kind of disaster or difficult life event happens to many different people, they will be affected in a whole series of different ways. So, for example, if I lose a leg in a car accident I might descend into years of depression. In contrast, I might deeply regret what happened but get on very successfully with my life despite the disability. To a large extent the differences in the two reactions to the same traumatic event can be explained by differences in how the event is coped with. Bryant and Veroff give examples of both helpful and unhelpful coping responses such as problem solving, seeking social support, praying, cognitive reappraisal, getting professional help, substance abuse, psychological denial, and avoidance-withdrawal.

In a similar way if the same kind of good fortune or positive event happens to many different people, they will also be affected in many different ways. So if I get a promotion at work I might internally shrug and get on with things. I might tell myself it's important not to get big headed about it. I might note that there had been a lot of luck in getting the new job. I might repeatedly remind myself over subsequent days how much I had hoped for this success, how it highlights how I am valued, is financially better rewarded, and allows me to have more influence now in contributing to positive change. I might tell people who I know care about me, talk to them about it, and celebrate with them. I might notice how the success physically affects me, describe to myself what emotions it brings out in me, remember other times that good things happened to me, allow myself to pay attention to and really enjoy the warmth and happiness that I feel. Just as different ways of coping with a disaster lead to different types, intensities and durations of painful emotional reactions (and different practical outcomes), so different ways of savouring positive experiences lead to different types, intensities and durations of pleasant emotional reactions (and different practical outcomes).

As a hard-working doctor, brought up through a school and university system dedicated to effort and continual refocusing on the next set of tasks, I know that savouring has so often been squeezed out of my own life - judged as self-indulgent and not something to waste time on. It's sad. I feel sad about this. The world, being alive, is so extraordinary. It makes so much sense to honour the importance of taking time to appreciate, to value, to notice. I want to make more time to do this and to learn how I can do it more fully. I think I'm good at coping with difficult things. I'm not at all sure that I'm as good at savouring what could be joyful, beautiful, or heart-warming.

For more on this, see the linked blog post "Savouring, mindfulness & flow".

Bryant, F. and J. Veroff (2007). "Savoring: a new model of positive experience." Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum. [AbeBooks] [Amazon UK]
Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). "The how of happiness: A practical guide to getting what you want." London: Sphere. [AbeBooks] [Amazon UK]
Wikipedia article on Flow. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology) Accessed January 27, 2008.


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Savouring both the "positive and negative"

I would further add that from the perspective of Zen training there is a sense of savouring whatever arises -"good or bad". As they say "The great way is simple it simply avoids picking and choosing". Through this training the practitioner develops their capacity for acceptance and develops the muscles of compassion! It parallels Gestalt Therapy's Paradoxical Theory Of Change by Arnold Beisser.

Many thanks and all the best