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A Primer for Training Savoring Skills in Psychotherapy (Part 2): Core Procedures and Exercises

10/08/2023 4:31 PM | Anonymous

Lucas S. LaFreniere, PhD - Skidmore College

In part 1 of this primer, we took a deep dive into explaining savoring’s nature—its processes (noticing, intensifying, and prolonging) and its components (targets, emotions, and attention). But how do we train the actual practice of savoring? Understanding is one thing, but doing is quite another. Here in part 2, we address doing the doing. Importantly, note that all the techniques we’ll cover are derived from the basic research, theory support, and clinical trials presented in part 1 (e.g., Craske et al., 2019; Kiken et al., 2017; LaFreniere & Newman, 2023b; Sin & Lyubomirsky, 2009; Smith & Bryant, 2017; Wilson & MacNamara, 2021; etc.).

General Procedures: Identify and Immerse

No matter which exercise we use, savoring practices generally involve two core procedures: 1) identifying target factors that elicit positive emotion and 2) immersing oneself in the good feelings. When we identify, we note the things we like about the savoring target and the positive emotions it brings up. The client recognizes and states the aspects of an experience that they find enjoyable. When identifying, it can be helpful to have clients briefly name what they like and feel, out loud. For example, I once had a client with depression who said he liked leopards. In the service of savoring, we watched an online clip of a nature documentary on leopards together. As he watched, I had him state all the things that brought him even the most mild pleasantness from it—the leopard’s graceful motion, their powerful speed, the look of their facial patterning, etc. You could physically see his mood shift brighter with each new factor he named.

As clients name their likings like this, you can encourage greater enjoyment with both your verbal and non-verbal responses. If you also like the things they like, say it—with a bit of reinforcing gusto if you can. Try to enthuse about their likings alongside them. Invite them into riffing on what’s great about the target. If you can muster it, add a little “happy energy” too—smiling, nodding, putting passion in your voice. Modeling savoring in this “monkey see, monkey do” type of way can be a powerful instructive tool—one that goes deeper than just words. Yet note that clients should only identify or name out loud if it doesn’t interfere with their experience. For some, identifying and naming during savoring may distract, interrupt, or pull them “into their heads” thinking, thinking, thinking. Remember, savoring is mostly about feeling. Regardless, when clients first start learning to savor, it’s nearly always beneficial for them to consciously key into what they like about an experience. Over time, identifying allows people to discover what they actually enjoy, rather than what they just think they enjoy or have been told they should enjoy. Moreover, as we spend more time identifying, we tend to find more parts of life to like. As poet Ross Gay (2019)writes in his Book of Delights, “The more stuff you love, the happier you will be.”

Identifying is just the start of savoring though—a way to get the motor running. The truest aspect of savoring is immersing. When we immerse, we attend fully to the joyful feeling, engaging with the positive emotion as deeply as we can for as long as we can. This is the actual work of noticing, intensifying, and prolonging good feelings. There are many ways we can guide the client’s immersion to maximize its benefits. Take intensification for example. While the client is immersing, we can ask them to “grow the glow”—to attempt to increase the emotion in whatever way works for them. You can guide them with statements like, “Pay deeper attention to the parts you like about this... Can you boost the good feeling?... Can you imagine it as a flame inside you?... Can you fan it bigger, or even douse it with gasoline?”, etc.

Outward expression can enhance this effort. Clients should be encouraged to allow themselves to smile, move their bodies, gesture with their arms or hands, or express in any other way they’d like (Montillaro & Dukes, 2018). When a person is really happy, it may even spark the “joy jumps” natural to many mammals (if you need a smile today, take a peak that this study: Kaufmann et al., 2022). Joy jumps are a big ask, but I do stress encouraging clients to allow themselves to smile. Even just a slight, peaceful smile is enough. Smiling can help us better access positive feelings, as well as enter our enjoyment more “bravely.” Often we’ve been punished, mocked, or otherwise “shut down” for expressing positive emotion in the past—others saying it’s “too much,” it “bugs me,” it’s “cheesy.” I encourage clients to “embrace the cheese” of opening up to a totally liberated joy. Smiling helps this work along, facilitating an unashamed, unflinching sort of delight.

After attempts to intensify, you can direct clients to hold on to their feelings as long as they can (prolonging). They can rehearse the aspects of the target they like. They can also find new likings to extend their enjoyment, reflecting further on the experience. As a person continues savoring, they’ll lose attention from time to time—their “to-do” list will barge in, a fear will crop up, a needy device will buzz them out of focus, etc. That’s not only okay, but expected. If we lose our attention to positive emotion while savoring, we just gently redirect back to it. No need to beat ourselves up.

Okay, let’s pull this all together. In general, a savoring exercise will include choosing some type of target experience to savor, acknowledging its enjoyable elements, and engaging with the positive emotions. Identify and immerse—highlight the highlights and feel the feelings. Note that you can do identifying and immersing in any order. Either can come first, although starting with identifying may suit beginners best. I suspect great savorers actually tend to move back and forth between identifying and immersing seamlessly over time. Regardless of sequence, there are countless ways you can conduct savoring practices in session. Have the client bring a food, choose an enjoyable song, watch a favorite video clip online, view photos of beloved people or pets on their phone, or think of their own target. You could present the savoring practice as a guided meditation akin to mindfulness, or dress it up in some other way. In any case, once they’ve practiced savoring in session, have them schedule specific savoring exercises in their lives outside of session. We want them to not only become accustomed to actually savoring in real life, but to also think of turning to it when useful, automatically. You can get very structured with it if you’d like, planning, charting, and rating savoring activities like in behavioral activation (Dimidjian et al., 2008). Regardless, repeated practice is key. Savoring is a skill that we’re training, and we hone a skill by practicing it over and over.

Savoring Exercises Across a Range of Difficulties

Identifying and immersing is a basic blueprint for savoring training. You can take it and get endlessly creative with it, varying targets, contexts, timeframes, and tasks. Yet to help you get started, let’s cover a few specific exercises. Now, savoring practices can be easier or harder based on many different factors—the complexity of the exercise, the situational context (how stressful, rewarding, distracting, etc.), the client’s state of mind, level of savoring experience, level of emotional awareness, etc. Beginning strategies tend to lean more on identifying, are more concrete, and tend to be practiced in stress-free contexts. Harder strategies lean more on immersing, are more abstract or complicated, and may be practiced in high stress contexts. It can be helpful to know (and assign) savoring practices that cover the full range of possible difficulties. You can tailor the training to the client, ratcheting up the challenge as they improve. Here are a variety of practices from easier to more difficult.

Level 1: Easier Strategies

  • Tagging: Tagging is consciously acknowledging that an experience is good as it occurs, in-the-moment. When a client notices their current moment is enjoyable or positive, they say or think to themselves, “This moment is good.” As they catch the sunshine walking from the car to the store... as they take their first sip of coffee after lunch... as they pause to stretch during evening chores—“This moment is good.”  It’s like clipping a “tag” of good onto the moment (or, in social media lingo, “tagging” the experience like an online post). We’re getting out our mental label maker and slapping a GOOD label on the here-and-now. As these labels pile up, it may re-train our attention toward positive parts of our experience, as well as give life a certain overall sheen. Tagging may be the least demanding practice, but it will still take some intention and awareness.
  • Listing Likings: With listing likings, clients list all the things they like about an experience. We can list likings about literally anything—experiences, people, situations, foods, tasks, etc. This is simply a direct method for training identifying. You can start by asking clients, “What’s one of your favorite activities?” Then have them list everything they like about it. After, clients can savor whatever positive emotions result from noticing these likings.
  • Savoring in Session: We’ve already covered this one above, but it’s worth giving it some screentime here. In session you can guide the client in a sort of savoring meditation: They are led through savoring positive emotions from any chosen target. Start them with identifying, then talk them through immersing. Debrief afterward, discussing their experience. I highly suggest that the client chooses their own target (i.e., the song, the food, the video, etc.). Again, I also recommend that you model savoring for the client. Show them how it’s done by identifying along with them, or even do it before they do. List your own likings, describe your own process, and—despite all your very serious degrees and distinctions—smile!
  • Two-Passes Savoring: It can sometimes be helpful to savor the same target twice, first listing likings, then feeling feelings. On the first pass, the client simply identifies. On the second pass, they engage with the positive emotions that arise from attending to their likings. For example, you can have a client choose an enjoyable song for you both to listen to together. On the first play through, they state everything they like about it. Then, on the second play through, they feel, amplify, and extend the positive emotions they get from attending to the things they like about the song. Breaking it down in this two-step way not only helps beginners, but also those who keep finding “just feeling it” to be difficult.
  • Best Moments Time Machine: If you want to really get the ball rolling, have the client access their most potently-joyful memories. The stronger the positive feeling, the easier it is to savor. Have the client either recall or journal about the happiest or most contented moments of their life. Actively discuss what those moments were like for them. What made it enjoyable? What did it feel like? Draw their attention to the elements that led them to feel positive emotions, like loved, proud, cheerful, etc. After they describe it, have them try to truly experience the feelings while they remember it—and dwell in them over time. This is a robust reminiscing practice that can go a long way, starting with a bang before trying less punchy targets.
  • Enjoyment Monitoring: With enjoyment monitoring, clients track and rate their enjoyable moments (on paper, a phone app, computer, etc.). Either during the moment or at some scheduled time of day, they write down what the moment was, rate how much they enjoyed it from 0 to 10, and—if enjoyment was a 5 or greater—list likings for that moment. Clinicians who are well-versed with behavioral activation will be very familiar with this tried-and-true method. It may reveal some strong activation activities for the client, which can also be savoring targets.

Level 2 Moderate Strategies

  • Randomized Savoring: Clients can stretch their savoring skills by being cued to savor good aspects of random moments—savoring at unplanned, unexpected times. You can facilitate this by setting up repeating, randomly-timed smartphone reminders. These reminders can nudge clients to find something good about their current moment—anything at all—and savor it. There are a variety of smartphone apps for random prompting, such as Yapp Reminders on iOS/iPhone or Randomly RemindMe on Android. The client could also set up a simple series of alarms or timers. Regardless, the idea here is to pause when prompted, identify a liking or two, and immerse right where they are.
  • Daily Savoring Meditation: Clients can also commit to savoring at specific, planned times. Each day they can conduct their own savoring meditation at a time that works well for them. Reminiscing (savoring a memory) often works well for this, given that it’s possible to do at nearly any moment. To help, you can record a guided audio meditation for them to take with them. Note that it’s best for them to eventually be able to savor on their own though, unguided.
  • Scheduled Savoring Activities: Similarly, clients can plan fun activities to intentionally savor between sessions. This allows them to get committed practice with actually savoring in-the-moment. Later on that day (e.g., before bed), they can practice reminiscing by savoring the memory of the activity.
  • Relational (Shared) Savoring: Relational savoring is when a person savors an experience with another person, often discussing what they like and feel. You can teach/assign your client to purposefully enthuse about a shared experience with another person. They can plan some activity, then aim to openly express likings and feelings of enjoyment with someone close. Think concerts, movies, meals, art shows, hikes, dog parks, etc. As they do this, it’s key to help them hold back from criticizing the moment. They should try to inhibit any urges to qualify or dampen the goodness of it. Many of us have been socialized to connect with others through complaining, mocking, cynicism, or other forms of noting negative points. It’s easy to slip into this “social sourpussery,” and—yes—it does have a time and a place. Yet in relational savoring, we’re intentionally taking an opposite tack: “Rant” about the goodness you can find, and do it together.
  • Savored Memory Recording: In the spirit of reminiscing, clients can keep an ongoing record of good experiences. Here they simply write down positive memories in a notebook, electronic document, or phone app, similar to a gratitude journal. It’s best to also purposefully savor these memories during or after recording them. Clients can recall the moments as vividly as possible, then juice out all the glee they can get from them.
  • Savoring Visualizations: You can equip clients with mental images and imaginal metaphors to help deepen a savoring meditation. While guiding, ask clients to imagine their positive emotion as a flame or a warm glow inside them. Invite them to “grow the glow,” asking if they can increase its size or intensity. Encourage them to keep the flame going over time if they can. If clients have trouble with intensifying or prolonging, try turning to visualization.
  • Abundance Basket: I designed the “abundance basket” exercise to help clients connect with the amount of good, savorable things in their lives. Essentially, they imagine filling increasingly larger vessels with all the enjoyable things their minds can conjure up. To do this, first invite clients to close their eyes. Then have them imagine a basket in front of them. Ask them to imagine filling up the basket with things they enjoy, one at a time. These things may not only be items (foods, hobby objects, books, etc.), but also people, pets, or representations of more abstract things (e.g., to symbolize an activity, put in some related trinket; to symbolize personal free time, put in a clock with wings; etc.). Do this until the basket is as full as they can get it. Once its filled (or they think of items too large to fit in the basket), guide them to imagine a larger vessel to fill—a storage chest, a Uhaul, a warehouse. Following this pattern, they should imagine more and more, bigger and bigger things they love. After some time has passed, guide them to reflect on the sheer volume of all the enjoyable things in their life—savoring as much as they can.
    Here are some tips: If you’d like, you can have them state the things they select out loud. Alternatively (or in addition), you can ask about these things afterward, as well as discuss the client’s experience with the activity. Your goal here is to help them get in touch with how much goodness there is out there for them to savor. They can then practice savoring with this mountain of targets. Note that the “basket fillers” should be things that are actually a part of their life (including people, pets, places, etc.)—not wishes, wants, or fantasies. Also make sure to use smaller vessels first, then move to larger vessels only when the smaller ones fill. A sense of “overflow” is the heart of the exercise. Lastly, feel free to turn this into a journaling activity. They write down a record or list of their “abundance,” then savor it. As for the imaginal exercise though, here’s a script you can use to get started:
    • “If you’re willing, I invite you to close your eyes... With your eyes closed, imagine a basket in front of you... We’re going to fill up this basket in our minds. I’d like you to imagine good things—things that you enjoy—and place them in the basket, one by one... Try to fill it with things that bring you positive emotion in your life, that you love.... Keep placing new things in your basket until it spills over... Now that your basket doesn’t have enough space to hold it all, imagine a bigger vessel—a box, a storage chest, a Uhaul, a warehouse.... Keep finding good things to place in your vessel... You can imagine more and more things... and bigger and bigger things to put in the bigger vessels... [You can guide clients through each larger vessel, which they can describe to you, following the pattern above. Once you find a good stopping point, pause for a moment and say the following:] Now, take a moment to look out on all the abundance of what is good in life—all these things you enjoy... Really feel the positive emotion you get from all these things... Savor it all as fully as you can, holding on to those good feelings.
    • Savoring Survival Kit: Along the lines of the abundance basket, you can have clients actually put together a small collection of items to savor on demand—their favorite chocolate, candies, or snacks, photographs, souvenirs of vacations or places, etc. They can pull this out any time they want to savor in a pinch.

Level 3 Challenging Strategies

I want to take a different approach to addressing difficult strategies. Training strategies on the harder end require special care and finesse. Savoring is more challenging when the client is in a tough situation, a state of emotional distress, or feeling resistant to enjoyment. There’s a fine line to walk at these times, validating their pain while still encouraging savoring for their own good. Life can be tough, no doubt about it. Self-protection and prevention of harm can crowd out life’s goodness for all of us. Yet even at these times, life’s positive points may harbor some benefits. Clients with anxiety, trauma, and depression often strongly prioritize managing and bracing for possible negative events. This priority can far exceed that of enjoying present-moment rewards. When our minds and bodies are telling us we should be preparing for the worst, sitting with positive emotion can feel quite vulnerable. Within this context, savoring can actually function like a sort of exposure therapy. Thus, we can conduct difficult savoring strategies much like exposure, bringing to it a similar sensitivity, mindset, and process. Fortunately, this vulnerable form of savoring does appear to both lower symptoms and improve happiness (LaFreniere & Newman, 2023b). For more on this point, you can refer to LaFreniere & Newman, 2023a. Still, we can’t always expect favorable returns. It will take practice and intuition to know when vulnerable savoring is appropriate, warranted, and beneficial. Yet if you can key in to these opportune moments, there may be much to be gained.

Okay, yes, but what are the strategies? Well, they’re essentially any of the savoring techniques above, just completed under circumstances the client perceives to be negative. These circumstances may be unsavory external situations or aversive internal states. Regardless, clients are led to try out a savoring practice while irritated, sad, anxious, ruminating, stressed out, or in any other sort of funk. For example, savoring amidst a train of worry has been shown to be helpful, cutting off the worry’s momentum. In one experiment, savoring immediately after a worry induction in those with Generalized Anxiety Disorder not only dropped their worry and anxiety, but also sparked a positive emotional state (Rosen & LaFreniere, 2023). Even so, be careful not to dismiss or discount the client’s negative feelings or situation. Clients may be able to savor good elements of a generally bad experience. Yet we don’t want to send an invalidating message that the overall experience isn’t bad, or—worse—that it doesn’t even exist. When in doubt, remember that you can conduct savoring exercises just like you would exposure therapy. As savoring melts away whatever woes it can, it may become easier and stronger, catching fire over time.

Continued in Part 3: Challenges, Pitfalls, and Solutions

There you have it! A smorgasbord of savoring strategies, plus a few tips and tricks. To continue on and read about common challenges in savoring work—as well as their solutions— stay tuned for part 3 of this primer. When published, you can follow the link below to that article. - COMING SOON!

Craske, M. G., Meuret, A. E., Ritz, T., Treanor, M., Dour, H., & Rosenfield, D. (2019). Positive affect treatment for depression and anxiety: A randomized clinical trial for a core feature of anhedonia. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 87(5), 457-471.

Dimidjian, S., Martell, C. R., Addis, M. E., Herman-Dunn, R., & Barlow, D. H. (2008). Behavioral activation for depression. In D. H. Barlow (Ed.), Clinical handbook of psychological disorders: A step-by-step treatment manual (4th ed., pp. 328-364). Guilford Press.

Gay, R. (2019). The Book of Delights. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Kaufmann, L. V., Brecht, M., & Ishiyama, S. (2022). Tickle contagion in the rat somatosensory cortex. iScience, 25(12), 105718.

Kiken, L. G., Lundberg, K. B., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2017). Being present and enjoying it: Dispositional mindfulness and savoring the moment are distinct, interactive predictors of positive emotions and psychological health. Mindfulness, 8(5), 1280-1290.

LaFreniere, L. S., & Newman, M. G. (2023a). Reducing contrast avoidance in GAD by savoring positive emotions: Outcome and mediation in a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 93, 102659.

LaFreniere, L. S., & Newman, M. G. (2023b). Upregulating positive emotion in generalized anxiety disorder: A randomized controlled trial of the SkillJoy ecological momentary intervention. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 91(6), 381-387.

Montillaro, M., & Dukes, D. (2018). Jumping for joy: The importance of the body and of dynamics in the expression and recognition of positive emotions. Frontiers in Psychology, 9.

Rosen, F. N., & LaFreniere, L. S. (2023). Savoring, worry, and positive emotion duration in generalized anxiety disorder: Assessment and interventional experiment. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 97, 102724.

Sin, N. L., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2009). Enhancing well-being and alleviating depressive symptoms with positive psychology interventions: A practice-friendly meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology: In Session, 65(5), 467-487.

Smith, J. L., & Bryant, F. B. (2017). Savoring and well-being: Mapping the cognitive-emotional terrain of the happy mind. In M. D. Robinson & M. Eid (Eds.), The happy mind: Cognitive contributions to well-being (pp. 139-156). Springer.

Wilson, K. A., & MacNamara, A. (2021). Savor the moment: Willful increase in positive emotion and the persistence of this effect across time. Psychophysiology, 58(3), e13754.

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