Lucas S. LaFreniere, PhD - Skidmore College
Can you recall a time you enjoyed something to the fullest? Seriously—a time you wholeheartedly relished an experience, delighting in it as deeply and as long as you could? In essence, I’m asking about enjoying on purpose. Positive emotions can be fleeting if they’re not captured. We often accept them passively as they come to us, yet fail to actively seek them out, embrace them, and hold on. Savoring practices offer us ways to do this embracing—to deliberately engage with joy and make it last. This active approach to good feelings has clinical utility for both reducing psychopathology and increasing happiness. In studies, savoring has reduced clinical levels of worry, anxiety, and depression symptoms (Bolier et al., 2013; Craske et al., 2019; Doorley & Kashdan, 2021; Garland et al., 2010; Gloria & Steinhardt, 2016; LaFreniere & Newman, 2023a, 2023b; Sin & Lyubomirsky, 2009), lessened attentional bias to negative information (Smith et al., 2006), and built resilience to and recovery from adversity (Catalino et al., 2014; Fredrickson et al., 2000). At the same time, savoring increases the frequency and intensity of positive emotions (Kiken et al., 2017; LaFreniere & Newman, 2023b; Quoidbach et al., 2010; Rosen & LaFreniere, 2023; Smith & Bryant, 2017; Wilson & MacNamara, 2021), while magnifying the beneficial effects of positive events on mood and cognition (Corman et al., 2020; Jose et al., 2012; Wilson & MacNamara, 2021). In short, if we get better at feeling our good feelings, we can feel good. Although a variety of empirical studies now support the use of savoring in treatment (e.g., Craske et al., 2019; LaFreniere & Newman, 2023b; Rosen & LaFreniere, 2023), few explain how to actually put it into practice. This three-part primer aims to teach readers how to implement savoring techniques for improving mental health. We’ll cover core concepts and psychoeducation here in part 1, move on to specific procedures and exercises in part 2, and finish with common challenges and solutions in part 3. Of course, please do refer to scientific studies on the clinical mechanisms and outcomes of savoring (this is a good start: LaFreniere & Newman, 2023a). Yet here we’ll face the feet-on-the-ground, hands-in-the-dirt work of actually training purposeful enjoyment.
The Key Concepts of Savoring
Training clients in savoring skills starts with psychoeducation. As with any quality psychoed., clearly defining our skill is a good first step. Savoring is intentionally attending to, amplifying, and extending the duration of positive emotions. The big idea here is that savoring maximizes engagement with positive emotions—both in their intensity and their timespan. It’s like plunging a big brazen spoon into the moment, then taking a slow, enrapt, delighted mouthful. To get more technical, savoring includes three processes: Noticing, intensifying, and prolonging. First, when savoring, we (1) notice our positive emotions. We consciously feel them when they arise, turning our mind to them on purpose. Since we can’t physically “show” clients how to notice, it helps to use some metaphorical language. ‘Noticing’ language can include words like bask, soak, engage, immerse, experience it fully, touch, absorb, and inhabit. Second, when we savor, we also try to (2) intensify the strength of our positive emotions. ‘Intensify’ can be communicated with phrases like fan the flame, whip up, juice, swell, amplify, boost, empower, and rally. Lastly, when we savor, we also (3) prolong positive emotions for as long as we can. We hold on to them, dwell on them, sustain them, draw them out, perpetuate them, and keep them going. So savoring is noticing, intensifying, and prolonging positive emotions. Both clinicians and clients should hold all three of these processes in mind, encouraging or attempting each one.
Now, a crucial element of savoring is that it is purposeful. When we savor, we make a deliberate, conscious choice to enjoy. It’s enjoyment not as a reflex, but as an act of intentional mission. Often people have lived their lives counting on external events, milestones, or winfalls to “bestow” their happiness upon them (“when I find the right partner... when I get this stress out of my life... when I finally retire...”). In savoring, we’re not waiting on situational changes to “make us happy” in a passive, automatic way. Our goal for clients is to actively grasp the good feelings already available to them. Here are some examples: A) Purposefully focusing your attention on how happy you feel when you’re out with friends; B) Dwelling on the joy you experience while listening to a song you love; C) When you succeed at the office, intentionally amping up your celebratory feelings and keeping them going (“Drinks after work anyone?”).
Components of Savoring: Targets, Emotions, and Attention
Any act of savoring has three components: A target, an emotion, and our attention. Notice that in each of the examples above, the positive emotions arise in response to something—time with friends, music, and work success. Each of these experiences is a savoring target. A savoring target is anything that elicits positive emotions. Targets can include stimuli we sense with our five or more senses (e.g., the fuzziness of a blanket, the taste of a brownie, the sound of a chime), as well as thoughts, memories, objects, activities, or people. Honestly, a target can be any feel-good experience or thing. If it leads you to experience positive emotions, it can be a savoring target. Positive emotions are simply feelings we experience as pleasant, represented in body and mind. They include joy, amusement, interest, love, cheerfulness, empowerment, wonder, excitement, awe—any good feeling. The act of savoring is actually drawing our attention to these positive emotions—noticing them, leaning into them, and dwelling on them. Targets can drum up positive emotions without attempting to savor them, of course. Yet research shows that deliberate savoring practices amplify the strength, length, and benefits of these emotions (e.g., Wilson & MacNamara, 2021). We’re also more likely to notice good feelings if we’re trying to notice them. Thus, attention is vital. To summarize, any savoring attempt has three components: A target that spurs positive emotion, the positive emotion itself, and our attention to the positive emotion.
Target → Positive Emotions ← Attention
Savoring is like warming up by a bonfire—a metaphor you can use with clients. The wood fueling the fire is the savoring target. The fire and its heat are positive emotions. Intentionally approaching the fire, reaching out your palms, and feeling the warmth make up the act of savoring. We need all three parts—wood, fire, and will—to savor. Client work with savoring involves identifying and creating targets (fuel), as well as training skills for drawing attention to positive emotions (warming). We do so in ways that notice, intensify, and prolong the good feelings. We’ll get to concrete ways to do that in part 2 of this primer.
First though, it's worth noting that targets have traditionally been sorted into three types (Bryant, 2003). Their distinctions are based on the target’s timeframe—past, present, or future. Reminiscing is when remembering a moment from the past generates positive emotion, which we can then savor. Vividly recalling last year’s vacation to Japan is a reminiscing target. Savoring the moment is when we savor positive emotions from the here-and-now. Enjoying the simmering sensations of a winter hot tub fits this kind of target. Anticipation is when a thought about something we expect to happen in the future gives us positive emotion (like excitement or hope). Looking forward to a weekend party is an anticipation target. You can use any of these as material for client savoring practices—memories, current experiences, or rosy expectations. Yet note that the actual savoring is always occurring in the present moment. We savor positive emotions that are here with us, now. For this reason, it’s often present-moment techniques that make for the most productive practice. You may want to prioritize ‘present’ exercises in training, both in and out of session. Note that the attention and awareness elements of classic mindfulness practices can strongly support this work. This is especially true if the client needs to first build basic attentional skills (e.g., focusing on breath, body scans, monitoring emotion, etc.). Yet even if the current moment is key, thoughts about the past or future can certainly generate positive emotions, which we then enjoy in the present.
What Savoring Is Not
For clients to truly grasp the meaning of savoring, it’s helpful to discuss what savoring is not. Misconceptions about savoring can interfere with clients’ adherence and success, especially if they create an unwarranted skepticism (doubts which, unfortunately, often go unspoken). By explicitly discussing common false beliefs in our psychoeducation, we can “head off” misunderstandings. First, we should acknowledge that savoring is not intended to be a cure for everything. It has important and beneficial uses, but it’s not meant to solve every ill or gather every gain. Savoring is one tool in our toolbox—a complement to the many others we have at our disposal. Oftentimes clients have misguided views that anything “positive” is juvenile, unrealistic, fraudulent, or otherwise “mockable” in some way. To present savoring as a panacea only further provokes this cynicism. Make its value clear, but be careful not to oversell it. Second, savoring is not “positive thinking”—it’s not “finding the silver lining,” nor keeping our thoughts “on the sunny side.” This is partly because savoring isn’t even about thinking—at least not primarily. Savoring is about feeling and experiencing our good feelings. Thoughts can be a target that bring up these feelings, but savoring itself is experiential. We’re not challenging negative beliefs with positive evidence here. We’re simply engaging with positive emotions. Moreover, positive thinking may invalidate or overlook the very real negative elements of client’s lives.
Which brings me to my third point: Savoring is not suppressing pain or dismissing problems. Just as we acknowledge and validate joy in our savoring, good treatment should also acknowledge and validate client’s trials and troubles. We are savoring in addition to managing negative thoughts, emotions, and situations—not “instead of.” We don’t use savoring in the service of pushing down pain or avoiding our struggles. Savoring runs to wellbeing, not away from pain. Acceptance practices are a good complement to this work (Chin et al., 2019). Acceptance can help clients drop their wrestling match with negative emotions, freeing them up to enjoy more fully. As for savoring, it’s a means to engage with the joys that life does present to us, even amidst our challenges. Sure, there are times when we have to make life’s lemons into lemonade. But when life gives you oranges, you can just eat them raw—sweet and succulent just as they are! Savoring is juicing all the goodness life gives us, in whatever form or measure it may come.
Continued in Part 2: Core Procedures and Exercises
We’re far from done! To continue on and learn specific procedures and exercises for training savoring, follow this link to Part 2: A Primer for Training Savoring Skills in Psychotherapy (Part 2): Core Procedures and Exercises - COMING SOON!
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Published August 25, 2023