I know it’s risky to make assumptions, but I'm going to go ahead and start with one. I’m guessing you would like to be happy in life.
I’m confident in making that low-stake assumption because happiness is nearly universally appealing to the human species. Our hardwired biological programming is to avoid pain and seek pleasure, and pleasure triggers an emotional response of happiness in that moment. In reality, though, simply wanting to be happy doesn’t always translate into getting the result. As is often true with our life goals, hope is not a plan.
One of the happiness challenges we face daily is our natural tendency to focus on problems. This is not a pessimistic or cynical observation; rather, it’s a baked-in trait we are all born with, passed on through hundreds of thousands of evolutionary years since our oldest ancestors. If we consider the reasoning behind this directed focus toward the bad versus the good, it’s easy to understand. To survive amidst constant predators, threats to our food supply, and other humans competing for scarce resources, we needed to maintain hyper-vigilance for any impending problems. Simply put, the bad things in life kicked down our front door and came at us head-on. All the good things in life, the happy stuff, were of a far lower priority, and as such, our brain has evolved to dedicate maximum focus on identifying the threats and problems. In other words, problems come looking for us, but pleasure is often hidden and requires finding.
If we fast-forward to 2023, we are no longer in the situation of a rival hunter storming our cave and stealing our food from the day’s hunt, but our brain has not caught up with the times. With that awareness of the gap between natural brain function and the different realities of life today, it falls on us to build our skills in developing the habits around sustained happiness with the understanding it’s not an automatic state of mind.
Another point to consider is that these skills around happiness are a focus area that has historically been largely ignored. When we think of the vast landscape of psychology and self-help resources from the past decades, the overwhelming focus has been on dealing with problems. Pick any possible mental health affliction, and there will be no shortage of books, texts, and journal articles from leading experts. Of course, that’s not a negative; there are undoubtedly many real problems that need real solutions. More to the point, it speaks to the fact that the mental health field naturally focuses on dealing with life challenges, not building happiness. Our ancestors would approve! All that said, learning how to create happiness is not something most of us were ever taught.
One persistent misconception is that when pain and suffering are absent, our natural state becomes one of happiness and joy. The absence of harmful elements brings us only to a neutral state of mental well-being; experiencing happiness is not automatically based on being problem-free. This is a fundamental distinction, and an easy example is anyone we interact with in life who seems to have plenty to be thankful for but remains persistently stuck with a negative outlook. (For instance, if you ask someone how their Labor Day weekend was and they say “awful, too hot,” it’s safe to say they missed the main headline that the sun was out and there was an extra day off to enjoy!)
With that in mind, we all can become masterful in the skills of developing our consistent happiness. Essentially, we are retraining our brain to shift focus from the negative to the positive. This process is a ‘simple but not easy’ endeavor because we are fighting against a powerful headwind of biological pre-programming.
This purposeful perspective change is where the practice of savoring comes in, and the mindful practice of paying attention to the simple pleasures around you at that time. This will likely be counterintuitive to our typical mental state of thinking ahead to what needs to happen, what problems you will deal with next week at work, what’s on the to-do list, etc. Being present in the present takes practice, but the reality is we cannot be in two places at once. When we are taking ourselves out of the moment, we are losing the opportunity to experience the joy of that moment we are in.
Keep in mind that where our attention goes, our focus flows. When we start practicing the skills of finding the joy in the simple moments of our day and enjoying our surroundings, whether it be nature, the people we are with, and the simple fact that at this moment, life is excellent, we encode those memories and further reinforce the practice in our mind. This small but powerful habit will incrementally shift our daily focus from automatically focusing on problems to looking through the lens of identifying positive things.
Here are some suggestions on ways to build and reinforce the ‘psychology of savoring’:
Take pictures: By this, I mean literally and mentally. If you see something that brings you joy in the moment, by all means, snap a pic of it with your phone and, ideally, send it to a friend and share that happy moment with them. On the mental side, have that conscious thought of ‘this is awesome’ and lock it into your memory. Our brain differentiates the moments we zero in on as highly favorable, and we can pull them back up in the future as positive memories. (Retrospective savoring).
Keep a list: Sometimes referred to as a ‘gratitude journal’, call it whatever you want, but make it a practice to review the day and pick out a few highlights that stood out as moments in the day that made you happy. This exercise serves double duty by allowing you to have an ongoing list of pleasant memories and builds the subconscious habit of being on the lookout for things during the day to add to your list. In that way, we train ourselves to become active hunters of happiness. Another way of putting this is to count your blessings.
Scale back on social media: Comparison is the great thief of joy, and social media is the greatest thief we, as humans in a technology-saturated world, have ever collectively confronted. No matter how good we feel about a particular aspect of ourselves, if we scroll long enough on social platforms, we will find something that diminishes the things in our lives if we allow that comparison mentality to take hold. This is especially true for teens, the first generation that not only feel like they are competing with all of the teens in their school but also every other teen they see on IG and TikTok. Our brain has not caught up with technology and cannot subconsciously separate the social media fiction of curated lives and perfect pics from the facts.
Zoom in your focus: This is all about being present in the moment and consciously deciding to enjoy (savor!) the enjoyable experience. It applies to everything, from taking the time to concentrate on the meal you’re eating to paying attention to the scenery and sounds on a walk. Anything that we enjoy doing is magnified in our memories when we take the time to stop our minds from wandering to distractions.
Too often, we look back at the ‘good old days’ with fond recollections and the realization that we didn’t fully appreciate how special the moments were until they were gone. It doesn’t have to be this way; we can train ourselves to recognize the magic of ordinary life while it unfolds in real-time. That’s a happy day indeed and a skill worth building!