We can all recall a time when we paused to truly appreciate a person, a meal, a sunrise or sunset. This is savoring, and it involves being aware of something — and getting real pleasure from it. But most of us don’t do it often enough.
It’s easy to dismiss savoring as somehow beneath other elements of joy, such as gratitude and compassion. Yet we have come to believe otherwise, and we hope to persuade you to make more time to savor life.
The Dopamine Problem
Dopamine is one of the brain chemicals that regulates our mood; it’s known as the “pleasure chemical.” Whenever we experience pleasure, we get a dopamine boost, which puts us in a good mood.
Correspondingly, if dopamine levels drop, our mood drops. Some forms of depression feature a profound loss of pleasure (called anhedonia) and the dopamine system is usually involved.
Dopamine is also closely tied to motivation. The brain is oriented toward things that provide pleasure, and our neurochemicals line up to help us get those things. It’s as if dopamine says, “Ooh, that was good! I want more of that.”
This worked wonderfully when our ancestors and their brains were evolving; resources were scarce, so there was little danger of anyone overdoing the good things available to them. Now, we’re surrounded by things that can provide dopamine hits that aren’t necessarily healthy.
Most of us even carry a small dopamine dispensary in our pockets: Every time we pull out our phones to compulsively check social media or our news feeds or do a little online shopping, we get another hit of dopamine.
Unfortunately, there isn’t really a good shutoff valve for pleasure. As far as our brains are concerned, the more pleasure — the more dopamine — the better. And this is the bedrock of many addictions: The more intense and short-lived the pleasure, the stronger the brain’s drive to get more of it. This impulse is built into our neural networks.
We’re often guided to use willpower to tame our impulses, but willpower is a finite resource. None of us has enough of it to resist all the short-term pleasures bidding for our attention.
And that is exactly where savoring comes in.
The Savoring Solution
A growing body of research suggests that a practice of savoring can help us enjoy a healthier relationship with food — with positive effects on both what and how much we eat.
But recent studies indicate that the benefits of savoring go far beyond that relationship. Savoring can help protect soldiers from the trauma of combat. It’s been associated with increased well-being. It can assist with recovery from a range of addictions.
And research on the neuropsychology of savoring suggests it can produce a measurable and lasting impact, enough to increase our neural response to future positive experiences. In one study, researchers trained a group of participants in a simple savoring practice — how to savor an image — while a control group received no training. Both groups viewed the same images, but the savoring group rated them as more pleasant than the control group did. They also showed increased activity in the emotional-arousal area of their brains.
The researchers then asked both groups to view another set of images 20 minutes later without any savoring instructions. The new batch included some positive images from the first viewing, and this time the savoring group rated them as more pleasant than they had earlier.
This is subtle, but important. It shows that in just those few moments, those subjects were able to train their brains to attend to something, appreciate it more, and enhance its impact for them. It created, at least in the short term, a lasting impact.
We can do this daily. Just pick one thing to savor that shows up in your daily life. It might be your morning coffee, the sunrise, the walk you take after dinner. When you notice or experience it the next day, it may offer a positive boost — without you doing a thing. Those areas of the brain will be activated just by seeing or doing it again.
This is how you can make your life sweeter — not by changing anything, but by appreciating what is already there.
This article was originally written by Henry Emmons, MD and Aimee Prasek, PhD and appeared as “Savoring: A Forgotten Key to Happiness” in the May 2023 issue of Experience Life.