Last summer, when a friend asked me to house-sit for her in the Hudson Valley, it felt like a divine intervention. New York City had been wearing on me more than usual. The sidewalks were packed with tourists, and the baking asphalt released swells of heat that felt like they could topple me over. After a flurry of writing assignments and then a lull, I felt unmotivated and needed an escape.
I spent three weeks away and reaped what you might expect from a rural sojourn. I was more productive, focused, and physically relaxed. Those were great payoffs, but what really stuck with me, what I come back to when I think of my time upstate, is the symphony of birdsong I could hear from the back porch. I don’t know what moved me to listen so closely, but whenever they began to sing, I would stop and revel in my private backyard concert.
The practice of lingering in a positive moment has a name: savoring. “It happens when we notice something pleasant, feel good about how good we are feeling, and then try to prolong those feelings,” explains Maggie Pitts, an associate professor of communication who studies savoring at the University of Arizona. Research has found that this psychological exercise is pretty powerful: it can lead to better mental health and relationships, among many other benefits. But what is it, exactly? Most of us probably associate the experience with a perfectly cooked steak or a crisp wine, but savoring transcends taste buds. “We can savor anything that’s positive or meaningful to us,” says Pitts. That includes sensory experiences like the smell of pine during a forest hike, accomplishments like running your first marathon, and even events in the past or the future, like a cherished or upcoming vacation. In her research, Pitts focuses on social experiences, such as intimate conversations with friends.
Like mindfulness, savoring is another way to exercise being present, but it takes things a step further. “Mindfulness asks you to observe the present moment without judging it and then let go of it,” explains Fred Bryant, a psychology professor at Loyola University who pioneered the field of research. “Whereas with savoring, you observe a specific type of moment, a positive one, and then you try to cling onto it and not let it go.”
The benefits of savoring are similar to those of mindfulness: studies have found that it can improve mood, lead to greater life satisfaction, and increase feelings of gratitude and appreciation. But it can also help you remember things more vividly, something mindfulness doesn’t do. “The intense presence and attention to detail help you to create a memory map in your mind that you can access later,” explains Pitts.
Researchers also think that the technique could be an easy way to feel more joyful. “People are always asking, ‘How can I get happier?’” says Bryant. “We know that we don’t find happiness just by experiencing good events. What matters is how we react to them and whether we appreciate and find joy in them. Savoring is one of the roads that can lead us to more happiness and meaning.” And because we can savor moments in the past, present, and future, it might allow us to experience a flood of positivity more often than mindfulness.
Like any skill, savoring takes a little practice and intention. First, quit multitasking. Without screens and other distractions, we’re better able to tune into positive or meaningful experiences, says Pitts. When you find yourself enjoying an experience and want to tuck into it, Pitts suggests asking yourself what makes it special, what else it might remind you of, and precisely what you’re enjoying. “This not only helps you prolong the moment, because you are collecting more information about it, but also allows you to remember it better so you can savor it again in the future,” she says. Another technique is to share the moment with others, whether that’s the people currently having the experience with us or when we later recall moments with someone who wasn’t there. “Articulating something out loud makes it more real to us, it allows us to focus, heighten the experience, and savor it better,” says Pitts.
Today, savoring remains a small field. Pitts estimates that there are about 20 academics, mostly psychologists and communication scholars, who count the subject as a primary research interest. That could be part of the reason the field hasn’t received as much attention as something like mindfulness. Even from the beginning, the topic has been met with raised eyebrows. Bryant recalls that it took him ten years to publish the first paper on the topic. “At the time, everyone was trying to figure out depression, and no one was interested in savoring and other positive-psychology concepts,” he says. “People asked me, ‘What does this have to do with depression?’ And I said, ‘Nothing.’ And they said, ‘OK, then we don’t have to know about it.’” But the field started to shift in the late nineties: positive psychology took off, encouraging academics to dive into topics like meaning, happiness, and savoring.
Researchers are now hoping to inch savoring into the spotlight, as the number and breadth of their studies continues to grow. In addition to looking at its relationship with happiness, experts are investigating how savoring could help treat depression, reduce pain, and promote health and resilience in the elderly. It’s being studied in the context of family functioning, job performance, and tourism as well.
Despite the promising research, the concept isn’t a panacea. “It’s a luxury,” says Pitts, “because in order to do it, you can’t feel cognitively taxed, overwhelmed, or distracted.” Savoring can only happen when our basic needs are met and we’re already feeling pretty positive. Bryant notes that individuals who are predisposed to pessimism or depression might not benefit greatly. In this way, savoring falls short compared to mindfulness, which encourages us to let go of thoughts rather than stay in them. “Even in the fight for survival, you could still engage in mindfulness,” says Bryant.
You do need some time and mental clarity to savor, but it doesn’t need to take long. Pitts practices it while she’s on her way home from work. “With kids and a job, there aren’t many long, luxurious moments of anything in my life, but I squeeze savoring in whenever I can,” she says. “When I enter a new room, I look around and see what I could savor. Maybe it’s someone’s beautiful handwriting on a memo.”
Although I delighted in my backyard soundtrack while it was happening, the payoff from savoring really came later on. When summer came to a close, and my friends complained that their season sped by, I disagreed. My summer didn’t fly; instead, it lingered. Both Pitts and Bryant explained to me that savoring can make time feel like it’s moving a little slower, a welcome sensation when days feel short and busy. Savoring may not be the answer to all that ails us, but if it makes me feel like I can cheat time just a bit, it’s worth it.