I recently had a client contact me wanting to attain “sustainable happiness,” a notion that’s been perpetuated by self-help books, crystal-pedaling hippies, and Prozac commercials. Humans were not intended to be happy all the time. Or to be sad all the time. Or to watch more than one season of a show on Netflix at a time. We are creatures who need contrast. We can’t appreciate the light without the dark, the Oreo without the cream filling. But since debating the nature of happiness doesn’t make for a good first impression, I asked her, “What brings you joy?” Silence. She had no idea.
I could empathize. I was once in her place, living in sweatpants, eating junk food, and dating crappy men. The point is, I had no idea what made me happy either. I was so focused on being happy all the time that I barely noticed what made me happy when I was. And that’s exactly why I was unhappy.
The truth is that it’s freakin’ hard to say what makes us happy, but in the moment, when we feel true bliss, we’re able to pinpoint with certainty the exact thing that changed our state. It could be ice cream on a hot day, puppy cuddles after a bad date, or finally feeling the AC when you’re stuck on the subway.
But if you’re a vegan, a cat-lover, or chronically cold, don’t despair! There’s an easy solution to your pleasure puzzle.
Ready for it?
Next time something good happens, stop and actually appreciate it. Sounds ridiculously simple? In theory, yes. In reality, no.
How Savoring Works:
As I’m writing this, I had to turn my wifi off. Why? Because I’ve been conditioned to be a multitasking machine. Among my favorite distracting tasks (including, but not limited to making Spotify playlists, picking at my split-ends, and texting friends), is the incessant checking of Facebook. I don’t enjoy it, I’m like a mosquito drawn to a bug zapper. Even writing outside, an activity that gives me peace and clarity is greatly diminished. Why? Because the less I notice any one thing, the less I am able to enjoy anything.
So what happens when I go off the grid and savor a moment? I notice the nuances: the sights, sounds, and smells that make writing outside feel amazing. Every time we savor, we’re making a deposit into our happiness account. It all adds up. As David Niven notes, "Those who said they regularly took notice of something beautiful were 12% more likely to say they were satisfied with their lives." The truth is that we see what we look for. Practice savoring and you’ll be conditioned to notice the things that make you happy and not just the crap that brings you down. I
So How Exactly Does One Savor?
1. Slow the F*ck down.
That means turn off the TV while you eat. Don’t watch football online when you’re on a Skype date with your girlfriend (Yes, I’m still pissed about that!) The old adage “stop and smell the roses” is backed up by research in positive psychology.
2. Get grateful.
It’s easy to focus on the negative. Sometimes, that’s a good thing. It helps us to identify a problem and takes steps to solve it. When dialed up too high, this strength becomes a weakness, forcing us to only see what isn’t working in life. Instead, notice what’s going right by writing a gratitude list. Not only will this improve your mood in the moment, you’ll rewire your brain to be happier more often.
3. Celebrate your wins.
It’s easy to ignore both our small victories and big accomplishments. We’re great at supporting others, but bad at rewarding ourselves. Rather than waiting to achieve an outcome, start savoring the steps you’re taking by celebrating the mini-milestones. Don’t feel like you deserve it? How would you respond to a friend who told you she didn't deserve to celebrate her accomplishment? Simply put, take a vacation, book a massage, buy the shoes.
4. Don’t dump on others.
When asked “How was your day?" most of us are tempted to launch into a tirade of “Chad’s” obnoxious behavior, insane traffic, or some other negative experience. There’s a time and place to vent, and it shouldn’t always be on your partner. Sharing positive experiences and accomplishments will increase your happiness and strengthen your relationship.
5. Control the conflict.
Sounds counter-intuitive, but savoring helps you to keep cool during a conflict. If you’ve ever felt angry and thought “I love you, but I can’t stand you right now!” then you know how hard it is to have a productive conversation when pissed. When we’re angry, our focus narrows onto the other person’s perceived failures. Shift yourself back to a more realistic view by thinking and/or sharing something you appreciate about the other person. This simple tool allows both people to let their guard down and focus on fighting to fix rather than fighting to win.
Ultimately, your focus determines your happiness. If you’re so concerned with being happy all the time, you’ll ignore the moments when you actually are. Don’t know what makes you happy? That’s fine. Just focus on the feeling when it comes up. Take in the entire sensory experience. Over time, you’ll strengthen your ability to notice the good and ignore the crap, improving both your mood and your relationships. And to me, that’s much better than crystals, Prozac, or Netflix.