Jason Tougaw

The Elusive Brain

How Savoring Can Be an Antidote to Digital Angst

Stretching out positive experiences is key to well-being.

Posted Mar 06, 2019

A new study by psychologist Margaret Jane Pitts and a new novel by Siri Hustvedt dovetail on the question of savoring—what it means, how it works, and why it's important, perhaps now more than ever.

Siri Hustvedt
Source: Siri Hustvedt

The various narrators in Hustvedt's Memories of the Future recount their passionate savoring of books: "I have traveled in and out of thousands of of books in the library, have walked in and out of countless mental rooms and turned down hallways I had not known existed, only to find at their end more doors to open." Another narrator reflects, "A book on a shelf is asleep; it is the Spirit of the thing that lasts, and only after it has been read and haunts the brain of its reader." Savoring stretches an experience out over time. It leads somewhere, down hallways and through new doors. It stretches a pleasurable moment into the near future and it stays with us—haunts us—for a long time. 

In The Journal of Language and Social Psychology, Pitts has published results of research on young adults' savoring of various forms of communication. In "The Language and Social Psychology of Savoring: Advancing the Communication Savoring Model," she defines savoring as "a form of emotional capitalization that occurs when individuals notice positive experiences and then act to prolong or enhance the pleasant sensations." This week, the research was profiled in Science Daily, which offers a thorough summary of the research and methods.

Pitts found that her subjects savored seven types of communication that felt more than routine. For example, they savored exchanges with an aesthetic charge, that felt artful; those that created a feeling of presence, engagement, and connection with another person; or those satisfying moments where you communicate without words. Pitts builds on a history of research in positive psychology to argue that "savoring generates positive affect," thereby "broadening" a person's repertoire of thoughts, feelings, and actions.

I don't mean to suggest that Hustvedt's savoring is all books. Her characters savor conversations and relationships. They savor each other. Sometimes hungrily. Like Pitts's subjects, they savor conversations that surprise them, make them feel known, or change them. Her protagonist spends a lot of time eavesdropping, savoring the shocking monologues of her neighbor. It's just that Hustvedt's characters find similar capacities in reading. And reading a book is a form of what Pitts calls "aesthetic communication." Books are written and read by people, after all. 

Like Hustvedt, Pitts emphasizes the temporal quality of savoring a pleasure that lasts--that sticks with us or changes us. She argues it can make us more resilient. Later in her novel, Hustvedt addresses her reader's resilience directly: "We all suffer and we all die, but you, the person who is reading this book right now, you are not dead yet. I may be dead, but you are not. You are breathing in and out as you read and if you pause and place your hand on your chest, you will feel your heart beating." Hustvedt directs her readers to make a connection between savoring a book and savoring life,  without getting too gushy about it. Like her protagonist, we can survive life's difficulties. What we savor along the way stays with us, even defines us. 

While neither Pitts or Hustvedt addresses this directly, I think savoring may be a key antidote to digital angst. It's common these days to wonder about the cognitive, emotional, social, and political effects of digital life. The pace and fragmentation of communication online make for a lot of quick connections. As Laura Miller argues in a review of Brain Pickings author Maria Popova's new book Figuring, a decade ago we worried whether all this "skittering" was damaging our attention spans while these days we're more likely to read a think piece about how "how it has transformed us into tribalized rage monsters."

A common denominator in these concerns about digital life is a lack of savoring. To savor is to take your time, make connections, find new doorways (or hallways), and be genuinely changed by the experience, in the lasting way. The internet is great for making masses of information and communication available, but it's a killer when it comes to savoring them. 

Pitts draws on research by Bryant and Veroff to suggest that "[t]he mindfulness involved in present-moment communication savoring can create a richly detailed memory map that individuals can recall and relish in in the future." Hustvedt calls this "the stretch of now, that temporal yawn that moves us from the immediate past into the immediate present with the expectation of the immediate future." Husvedt is describing what neurologist Antonio Damasio calls the autobiographical self—the feeling of identity over time. Pitts's research suggests that savoring works its way into the autobiographical self: When you savor a pleasure, you create an opportunity for a sustained feeling of well-being. 

Another novel, Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, offers some passionate reflection on savoring. The novel is about love, friendship, and mortality. But it's also about a song. Specifically, it's about savoring a song. Sure, its primary characters happen to be clones, but that's really a metaphor, as Ishiguro has often explained

In the novel, a character finds an old cassette and listens to a song entitled "Never Let Me Go"—again and again. "It's slow and late night and American, and there's this bit that keeps coming round when Judy sings: 'Never let me go . . . Oh, baby, baby . . . Never let me go . . . ' I was eleven then, and hadn't listened to much music, but this one song, it really got me. I always tried to keep the tape wound to just that spot so I could play the song whenever a chance came by." She savors the song. Later, she finds another copy in a thrift shop.  She hangs onto it for the duration of the plot, savoring it for life. Again, there's a connection between past, present and future—a pleasurable one, a slow one. 

Ishiguro's novel adds a dimension to all this talk of savoring: It's unpredictable and very personal. Not everybody likes their music "slow, late night and American." You never know when you're going to stumble upon the thing that does the trick. These days, when we crave for a respite from the skittering vitriol or drama of digital life, it would serve us well to be on the lookout for these unpredictable moments when we feel the savoring impulse. Pause the cassette. Return to it. Dig in. Savor. 

Hustvedt and Ishiguro have already given us a clue where to look—books, art, music. Pitts suggests certain kinds of communication with other people, conversations with an aesthetic zing, an interpersonal connection, emotional charge, or element of surprise—the very qualities Hustvedt's narrators find in books and Ishiguro's in a song. 

References

Bryant, F. B., & Veroff, J. (2007). Savoring: A new model of positive experience. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Miller, Laura (February 27, 2019). "Missed Connections." Slate. https://slate.com/culture/2019/02/brain-pickings-book-maria-popova-figuring-review.html

Pitts, Margaret Jane. "The Language and Social Psychology of Savoring: Advancing the Communication Savoring Model." Journal of Language and Social Psychology 2019, Vol. 38(2) 237–259.