In 1989, the now acclaimed film Dead Poets Society was released. It told the story of a high school English teacher (played by Robin Williams) who engaged his students through the teaching of poetry and instilled in them a desire to “seize the moment” which in Latin is the famous phrase “Carpe Diem”. During the course of the film, each of the students with key roles in the film did exactly that – they took actions which recognised an opportunity in the very present moment and did something to build on that opportunity. Who would have thought that a high school English teacher could have such extraordinary advice for how to engage in life and savour moments from it?
What is savouring?
Savouring is the act of immersing ourselves fully in an experience so that we can extend the joy, satisfaction and positivity of it both for ourselves and for others. The use of savouring as an approach to building ourselves up psychologically and emotionally comes from the field of Positive Psychology.
Some researchers such as Dr Barbara Fredrickson describe savouring as something that can contribute to our “positivity bank account”. Think of this as a bank that we can draw down on to support ourselves through difficult and challenging times as well as to be able to contribute to positive experiences for others. The more that we can “save” in the positivity bank account the more we have available to withdraw.
Over the past 10 years or so, there has been a great deal of research focusing on savouring in an effort to both define it and to define its benefits for us as people. You can read an example of that research here which shows that we can increase our day to day experience of happiness by practicing savouring.
You can read some great tips for increasing your capacity to engage in savouring here. Two of my favourites are sharing the positivity with others – how much time do we spend in complaint? About politics or traffic or people at work or something like that? By comparison how much time do we spend in sharing the joy of a moment that we experienced with another person? Do a thought experiment right now and imagine how your perception of your day might change if you were to share more of your positive experiences with others. The other strategy that I really appreciate is to take a mental photograph. Why? Because to do this means that we really need to pay close attention to what it is that we are looking at in that moment – to really focus our whole set of senses on it.
We can savour all of our experiences – past, present and future. Have you ever looked back at a significant event in your past – maybe a birthday celebration, a wedding, travelling with a friend, meeting someone extraordinary? If so it’s likely that you’re engaging in “savouring” that moment over and over again. We can also cast our gaze into the future and savour an anticipated experience – looking forward to the reaction we imagine a partner will have when they come home to a meal we prepared or imagining the reaction children will have when they open a gift. The more we immerse ourselves in this process of savouring the more we build an experience of positivity for ourselves.
But here’s the thing – if we want to savour a past experience (and these are some of the most delightful experiences that we can savour) then we need to have paid sufficient attention to it while it was happening in order to lay down a strong enough memory of it to be able to recall. If we didn’t do that, then the memory that we have will be faded at best and perhaps not even present.
How much of our moment to moment attention is actually given to fully immersing ourselves and experiencing something right here, right now? This is the real challenge for us if we want to be able to fully experience the joy of savouring. Much of our daily life involves so many competing demands on our attention we often only minimally pay attention to experiences we are having that could be really amazing. Have you ever eaten a meal, watched a show on television and also texted a friend on your mobile phone all at the same time? If so, which of these experiences were you actually fully immersed in and did you fully appreciate? We know that humans are generally not very good at multitasking (although we like to think that we are). My guess would be that if this sounds like you and I spoke with you a week or two weeks later, you would probably only recall a few aspects of each of those elements of your experience rather than being able to really describe some part of it in detail.
So if we want to have a doorway in to being able to increase our experience of savouring, we need to look at some of the practices that we can engage in moment to moment and day to day that will help us. One of these is the practice of mindfulness.
There are lots of ideas about what mindfulness is and how we can go about doing it. They range from quite formal mindfulness meditation practices through to the more simple practice of paying attention to the present moment. I particularly like the definition of mindfulness offered by the person whom many would consider to be the modern day father of mindfulness meditation – Jon Kabat-Zinn. Over the last 40 years Kabat-Zinn has done extraordinary work in helping us to both understand what mindfulness is and also its benefits to health and will being.
Kabat-Zinn defines meditation in this way: “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally”.
What does this actually mean? It means that we can engage in the practice of mindfulness simply by being deliberately and purposefully focused on whatever it is that we are doing in that moment. Furthermore, mindfulness involves us observing only and not judging what we see or do. So if you’re washing your hands, the practice of mindfulness would involve attending closely to the feeling of the water as it passes over your skin or the feeling of your hands rubbing against each other with a bar of soap or hand wash. It involves paying attention to the feeling of the paper drying your hand or the coarseness of a towel rubbing over your skin. In other words, mindfulness involves having your whole attention to that task in which you are engaged, and nothing else.
Whatever your daily activity happens to be at that time, the practice of mindfulness invites you to immerse yourself fully and engage completely in the experience. This is perhaps the mechanism by which mindfulness has been shown to be beneficial for people experiencing both anxiety and depression. At its heart, anxiety often involves fearfully focusing on the future while depression involves regretfully focusing on the past. If you choose to devote your entire attention and focus to the present moment, these other ways of engaging with the world which evoke experiences of anxiety and depression tend to fade.
Taking it further…
If you want to develop your capacity for mindfulness, one of the approaches that may be helpful is to make a regular practice of something that’s closer to mindfulness meditation so that you can more easily engage in the practice of mindfulness in your day-to-day life. There are many many ways to practice mindfulness meditation but I want to show you a simple and straightforward method that you can begin employing straight away. The more you practice this, the more easily you’ll find that you can adopt a “mindful” approach to whatever it is you’re doing in your daily life.
Find somewhere comfortable to sit. It doesn’t have to be quiet. You can have your eyes closed or open – which ever you prefer. My own experience is that closed eyes makes it easier to pay attention to sounds and sensations because our visual channel tends to be so dominant otherwise. Once you’re seated comfortably, just begin a practice of slow breathing. This is not deep breathing - it’s simply slowing your breathing down so that you inhale to a count of about five then exhale to a count of about five. You should be taking about 5 to 6 breaths per minute if you do this.
This simple practice will enable you to begin experiencing immediately the benefits of bringing your whole attention to the present moment. It’s a skill that develops the same as any skill does – the more you practice it, the more natural it becomes and the more quickly you can engage in it when you wish.
The art of savouring
If we want to have more experiences of “savouring” life, then we must be prepared to pay more attention to our moment to moment experience of life. It’s exactly the same as savouring a meal. You could have the most incredible and delicious meal in front of you, but if you’re not paying attention to eating it then you’ll miss most of the joy of what it has to offer you. When you choose to put aside other distractions and focus yourself entirely on savouring that food, you squeeze the most life, the most joy and the most satisfaction out of the experience.
Our capacity to savour starts with a capacity to be more mindful in the present moment. Mindfulness requires that we not judge or evaluate our current experience. But savouring takes this a step further and invites us to deliberately search out the positive, to deliberately describe it to ourselves in positive terms and to deliberately hang on to it and share that experience widely.
Oh…and carpe diem!
FASLM, MHlthSci, DipIBLM, MAPS
Writing exclusively for MindRazr, Simon is the CEO of Wellcoaches® Australia, an AHPRA Registered Psychologist, Board Certified Lifestyle Medicine Professional, Fellow of the Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine and Fitness Trainer.