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Life's Uncertainty Got You Down? Research Suggests Savoring

Three studies look at how unpredictability influences enjoyment of life.

Key points

  • Life is both uncertain and predictable, and uncertainty can make people feel anxious and out of control.
  • Uncertainty also opens up room for positive change, if approached constructively.
  • Savoring, research suggests, is a potential adaptive response to uncertainty.

Uncertainty is a double-edged sword. Uncertainty tends to make people more anxious and leads to efforts to control what happens. Expecting the worst can be self-protective, making it harder to be surprised when bad things happen. At the same time, anticipating that things will go poorly can influence our decisions and behaviors and increase the likelihood of negative outcomes. Accepting uncertainty, even leaning into it, can feel more risky while opening up room for more possibilities, greater adaptability, and perhaps greater satisfaction.

Does savoring buffer how we react to uncertainty?

Savoring, as described by researchers Gregory, Quoidbach, Haase, and Piff in the journal Emotion (2021), is “a form of emotion regulation that involves deliberately upregulating positive affect.” Savoring may happen spontaneously or it may be a choice we actively make — or even a philosophy of life.

“For one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy” — Aristotle

In their research, Gregory and colleagues studied how uncertainty affects our capacity for savoring. Increased savoring has been linked with seeking positive circumstances, choosing to look at the pleasant side of things, taking action to make things more pleasant, re-evaluating how we have interpreted events to find positive aspects, and behaving differently to bring out the best in situations.

Study authors review the literature on the many reported benefits of savoring including: improving well-being, raising self-esteem, increasing happiness, alleviating depression, increasing resilience, and bolstering our sense of life’s meaningfulness — plus potential beneficial effects on disease processes like reducing inflammation and alleviating physical symptoms of cancer.

To better understand the role of low levels of uncertainty, Piff and colleagues conducted a series of three studies probing how savoring and uncertainty related.

In the first study, they tracked emotions throughout the day for over 6,000 people using a survey app called “58 Seconds,” which allows participants to respond on-the-fly to mini-surveys. They looked at measures of uncertainty, savoring, and emotional state using probing questions1 and analyzed the complex data set (containing over 18,000 self-reported observations).

They found connections between uncertainty earlier in the day and increased savoring several hours later, persisting after controlling for a range of potentially confounding variables including age, time of day, day of the week, and emotional state. This correlated effect was relatively short-lived, falling off after 7 or 8 hours.

The second study addressed the question of causality. After viewing videos designed and shown to manipulate the sense of life’s predictability — one to increase the sense of life’s uncertainty and unpredictability, one presenting the future as more stable, and a third neutral video — the 397 participants assessed level of negative emotion and three different measures of savoring2. The research team found that increasing uncertainty caused savoring to rise, going beyond the first study to demonstrate that manipulating a sense of uncertainty influences the tendency to savor.

The third study used a real-world design in order to look at savoring outside of a self-report, laboratory setting. Researchers set up operations on a busy urban intersection, handing out flyers to people walking past and later asking them to choose whether to literally “stop and smell the flowers” in a roadside station ostensibly set up by a fictitious college student group (the UC Berkeley Student Alliance for Vitality and Rejuvenation).

Over 200 people received one of two leaflets showing a picture of a flower with the text “Stop and smell the roses.” They were identical other than one had the slogan “LIFE IS UNPREDICTABLE” and the other “LIFE IS CONSTANT.” Down the road about 150 feet, researchers had a table set up with a bouquet of roses. Passers-by were offered the choice to enjoy the aroma, while research assistants hiding nearby coded their reactions.

People who had received the LIFE IS UNPREDICTABLE leaflet were 2.58 times more likely to pause and savor the rose perfume. This effect held steady after controlling for participant age and gender, and supported the survey-based finding that priming awareness of life’s uncertainty, on average, increases the chance we will savor experiences when the opportunity presents itself.

Savoring as a way to sway how uncertainty lands

Savoring goes beyond being an important concept in positive psychology — for many, it is a way of life, intimately intertwined with nurturing the life philosophy of living well, flourishing, or eudaimonia, a philosophy of living life to the fullest described by Aristotle as virtue.

Given life’s irreducible uncertainty, how to live well in the face of unpredictable ups and downs is a deep and enduring question with which humanity has grappled for centuries. Adding an element of uncertainty to a threat makes it seem even more dangerous. At the same time, excessive predictability is dull and lifeless, and adding uncertainty spices things up in relationships, story-telling, and even with oneself, core to creativity and play. Certainty can be reassuring, and is needed for stability, but ultimately finding the right balance between unpredictability and control is most satisfying.

Having established the basic relationship between uncertainty and later savoring, there is room for future research looking at different kinds and degrees of uncertainty, getting a better sense of how savoring and uncertainty relate over longer periods of time, and how the impact of specific types of threat affect savoring responses, including the role of anxiety about dying (“mortality salience,” a part of terror management theory, which looks at how our relationship with death affects how we make decisions). Another question comes to mind: Does savoring affect future emotional responses to uncertainty? If a person is encouraged to savor, do they weather uncertainty with less negative emotion and more adaptive responsiveness?

Savoring goes beyond making us feel better, a coping mechanism potentially becoming a way of life. Of course, savoring is not a one-size-fits-all solution to flourishing. Simply telling someone to try to savor during difficult times misses the point, and may be read as tone-deaf. The ultimate goal of living a full life is appealing, but framing creating such a life as a simple choice risks missing the reality of how difficult change can be. Unresolved traumatic experience can undermine the ability to get oriented enough to sort out even basic needs.

Given that we are in the midst of a pandemic, not to mention a myriad of other changes on global and societal levels, learning to make the most out of living in spite of — or even by embracing in some ways — the unpredictability of the future remains a key existential and pragmatic question.

Savoring may play an evolutionary role, serving as a way to offset the negative emotional and psychological effects from uncertainty to map out a responsive, adaptive path through life’s vagaries — coupled with candid recognition of problems and constructive action. Beyond individual coping, savoring is a shared experience, allowing people to join in community during the best of times and the worst of times, to stay in tune with what is meaningful and important, to grieve and to celebrate, and to move forward together.

References

Gregory, A. L., Quoidbach, J., Haase, C. M., & Piff, P. K. (2021, July 29). Be Here Now: Perceptions of Uncertainty Enhance
Savoring. Emotion. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/emo0000961

Notes

1. At this very moment, how chaotic and unpredictable does the world feel to you?”

Were you currently savoring the present moment?

How happy do you currently feel?”

2. The savoring measures included a self-report scale, and a sophisticated exercise in which they imagined positive events (a personal success, a friend unexpectedly recovering from a serious illness) and look at the extent to which participants might enhance savoring or tamp it down.

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