7 Ways to Make Your Happiness Last

The mechanisms behind savoring could lead to new treatments for mood disorders.

Posted Oct 29, 2015

Photo purchased from iStockphoto, used with permission.
Source: Photo purchased from iStockphoto, used with permission.

When something good happens to you, what’s your reaction? Do you soak it in and share the good news? Find yourself reliving the event in your mind? How well, in short, are you able to savor the positive when it comes?

The ability to hang on to good feelings is an important aid to our emotional well-being, but it doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Those struggling with depression, for example, find that surges of pleasure fade like shooting stars instead of providing a lasting glow.

A team of University of Wisconsin researchers wanted to find out why this is so. They set up an experiment in which participants were rewarded each time they correctly answered a guessing game. They then used imaging technology to investigate just what was going on inside the brain when the pleasure of the win came and went.

They discovered that longer activation of certain brain circuits—even if that activation lasted only seconds—appeared to predict how persistent a person’s positive emotions would be over minutes and hours. Some people, in other words, seem wired to hold onto happiness more easily than others.

More study is needed to draw broader conclusions, but the findings are helping to explain the mechanisms behind savoring, and could lead to new avenues for treating mood disorders.

Savoring the Positive

While the study seems to show that some have a natural advantage in extending the life of their positive emotions, the good news is that everyone can work on improving their savoring skills—and that the payoff for the effort can be substantial. Research in the field of positive psychology, for example, links the act of savoring to better mental and physical health, better resiliency, more effective problem-solving, stronger relationships, and greater emotional growth.

It’s confirmation of what we know intuitively: The number of positive emotions we have in our life is our best objective measure of our happiness. But even more crucially, positive emotions help produce happiness. Savoring allows us to add to our supply of the positive simply by multiplying what we have at hand—our most joyful moments, memories and plans.

Consider these savoring strategies:

1. Pay attention to your current happiness.

Some call it mindfulness, others call it simply being present. No matter the term, the goal is not to let the good times pass unnoticed. It’s all too easy in our multi-tasking, distraction-filled world to miss opportunities to take a deep breath and appreciate what you have in that moment.

2. Pay attention to your past and future happiness.

Allow yourself to stroll down memory lane and relive the good times as well as to anticipate the good things to come. It’s been called a type of mental time travel that can help keep positive feelings flowing. A 2005 study found that those who reminisced about pleasant memories just 10 minutes twice a day reported increased amount of time they considered themselves happy.

Anticipation can be tougher because so many of us have learned the hard way not to count our chickens. While a level of realism makes sense, buying into the feeling that you are jinxing yourself by looking forward to happy events doesn’t do anything but dilute your joy.

3. Share the good.

It’s natural to turn to friends and loved ones when you want to vent about the negative things that happen to you, but you shouldn’t neglect to talk about the good things as well. Savoring a positive emotion with someone else has been found to make you feel happier, help the good feeling stick around longer and cement relationships.

4. Go nonverbal.

Dance, jump, smile, laugh. Expressing positive emotion in a physical way provides another way for the mind to experience happiness, making it feel more real.

5. Factor in your personality.

Research shows that the speed, drive, and perfectionism that go with Type A personalities may make it tougher for this group to savor their experiences. A 2013 study, for example, showed that rather than enjoying a vacation, Type As were more likely to think of how it could be better. Being aware of your personality traits, including a tendency toward such “kill-joy” thinking, can help you catch yourself if you’re sabotaging a moment in the sun.

6. Work on your self-esteem.

Research confirms, the better you feel about yourself, the more likely you are to savor the good things that come your way. Conversely, the lower your self-esteem, the more likely you are to dampen rather than enjoy your happiness. Some fear that they’ll be seen as blowing their own horn if they savor their accomplishments. Others can’t get over the feeling that they aren’t worthy of the good things that happen to them. Others hold on to their negativity because it has become part of their identity. If any of these styles sound familiar, it’s time for a hard look at your feelings about yourself.

baranq/Shutterstock
Source: baranq/Shutterstock

7. Remind yourself how good you’ve got it.

It can be easy to get caught up in all the things that are going wrong in your life—and the challenges that some face are indeed daunting. But no matter how bad things are, there are likely things that are going right in your life as well. Don’t forget to factor these in. Acknowledging the good helps you spiral up rather than spiral down.

Dr. David Sack is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine, and writes an addiction blog. As Chief Medical Officer of Elements Behavioral Health, he oversees mental health treatment programs at Lucida Treatment Center in Florida and Malibu Vista in California.