Savoring Joy

By Katie Bucklen, MD, FAAP

“If we spent even as short a time as we spend brushing our teeth each day nurturing our minds, this world would be a different place.”

Richard Davidson, Ph.D.
Founder, Center for Healthy Minds

If you have ever had one of those days when you feel down and grouchy, and like you just can’t see the good in anything, you are not alone. It turns out that humans have a natural tendency to notice and learn from negative information more than positive. Psychologists who study this tendency report that it develops in all of us early in life as a means of self-preservation. In other words, we watch for and react quickly to negative situations to keep ourselves safe. 

Here’s a definition of negativity bias from psychologist Dr. Amrisha Vaish at the University of Virginia: “The propensity to attend to, learn from, and use negative information far more than positive information.”

Despite the evolutionary benefit of this instinctive draw to the negative, it can also cause us to miss the joy that comes with noticing what is good. Here is a recent example. A friend’s son was pitching for his high school baseball team and things were not going well. One pitch would bounce on the ground before the plate. The next would sail over the batter’s head. The pitcher was visibly frustrated when the coach called a time out and walked to the mound.

After a brief conversation, the coach returned to the dugout and my friend’s son faced the next three batters with precision and grace. They all struck out. His ability to hear feedback and re-focus was a remarkable demonstration of mental agility that was very fun to watch.

The next day, I asked his mom how he felt after the game and she reported that he was very down about his poor pitching before he recovered. He felt he had let his team down despite a great recovery and a win for the team. It was only after gentle cajoling that he was able to identify what went well and to acknowledge that he did something really cool after hearing the coaching.

Practicing mindfulness teaches us to be aware of our attention – whether we focus on the positive or the negative – and to note – without judgment – our thoughts and feelings. When our minds are drawn to the negative, the teaching is to note the feeling, accept it and then let it go. This can be frustrating because the negativity bias keeps drawing our minds back to the difficult emotions and events.

Thankfully, mindfulness also teaches that you’re not getting it wrong if your mind keeps going back to the negative, you’re just being human. And, the teaching offers many tools that help us to transition our attention over time to automatically notice the positive. Of these, one of my favorites is called savoring joy. This is a practice for anyone to use when you find yourself in a funk, or to practice on days when you feel great to begin to create well-worn neural pathways in your brain that lead to a better ability to notice the good.

So… what exactly does it mean to savor joy in a way that helps your brain counteract the negativity bias? 

First, make a choice to actively notice a positive event, person, or thing in your life, then your present moment. Are you in a place where you can focus without too much distraction? If so, focus your mind on the positive moment, person or thing and really allow yourself to enjoy this focus. What you choose can be anything – a flower, a song, a friend’s laughter, the hug of a child you love, or a pet that is dear. Notice the details about your subject. For example, if you chose to recall a moment sitting with friends and laughing, notice how this memory feels in your body, your heart, and your mind. Does a smile come to your face? Is there a warmth near your heart? This feeling can be enhanced if you really notice everything that is happening as you remember this moment. If you feel comfortable, you can close your eyes and remember the details of the people who were there and why you love them, or you can open your eyes and notice that it is a beautiful day or there is a photo on your desk that makes you smile.

For many of us, the feeling of joy begins with a slight smile coming over our face, or a warm sensation in our chest. Notice the details of the feelings that come over you from where in your body they occur to their shape, texture, color, or even temperature. Stay within your comfort zone as you celebrate what feels joyful to you. If anything feels uncomfortable it’s okay to return your mind to recalling the thing that brings you joy.

We can savor anything that delights us whether it is in the past, present, or even the future. We might walk out the front door and notice that there is yard work to be done, which leads to feeling stressed because there isn’t time to do it. To counter this feeling, we might then notice a flower that is blooming and admire the beautiful colors and the wonder of how plants can seek the sun. 

For many of us savoring feelings of love or gratitude can be a source of joy. For example, if you recall a time that a neighbor helped you out, you can recall that moment and really allow your heart and mind to enjoy the feeling of how grateful you are or were in the moment for their help. Or if you have a pet you adore who brings you comfort, allow yourself to savor the feeling of love you hold for them, and your gratitude for the role they play in your life. Do they make you laugh? Are they snuggly? Are they cute?

The principles of savoring joy are not complex. It is really about pausing to notice and reflect on the things that bring you joy and how they make you feel. The hardest part is remembering to do it. With practice and time, that gets better. I recommend making an appointment with yourself once a day to pause and consider what happened during the day that was good as a way to ‘go to the gym’ to build the ‘muscle’ of savoring joy. 

In many cultures, noticing what is good and “looking on the bright side” can be viewed as akin to being gullible or foolish. I hope you won’t let this stand in your way. On the contrary, research shows that savoring the joy in life builds resilience, a sense of well-being, and fosters positive connections with others in everyone from school-aged children to elders. 

For a lovely summary of many more ways to bring savoring joy into your life and references for further learning, see https://positivepsychology.com/savoring/

If you are interested in learning more, consider taking a mindfulness class. You can explore the courses offered at The Center for Mindfulness & CBT by clicking here: Mindfulness Courses.

Dr. Bucklen co-leads the 6-week online Introduction to Mindfulness Course, and the next session starts next Wednesday, May 19, 2021 from 6-7 pm.

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