I’ve always referred to my youngest daughter as my Joy Child. Clara is a happy kid. As a baby, she smiled early and laughed often. She moves through each day at her own pace, and delights in much along the way. Recently, Clara celebrated a birthday. As usual, it was a big event. Clara twirled with anticipation in the days leading up to her party, squealed with delight as she opened her gifts, and is still grinning, several days later, that she is finally eight.
Part of what makes Clara so joyful is that she understands the art of “savoring.” Fred Bryant, author of the book Savoring: A New Model of Positive Experiences, defines savoring as “attending to, appreciating, and amplifying positive experiences.” Psychologist John L. Gibson explains that “savoring is about pleasure, almost as if you are suspending it in your mind,” and that “by enhancing positive experiences, we buffer ourselves against stress.”
According to Bryant, savoring takes three forms: anticipating a forthcoming positive event; intensifying or prolonging a positive experience as it occurs; and reminiscing about an event to trigger the favorable feelings or thoughts generated from that experience. Or, as I like to think of it, wringing ever drop of happiness from the before, during, and after.
For the second year in a row, Clara chose frogs as her birthday theme. Back in February, she googled “frog cakes” (cakes shaped like frogs, not made from frogs). After a lengthy search, she printed off her favorite options, cut them out carefully, and taped them to her door under the handwritten sign, “Posible BirthDay Desserts.” Weeks in advance, she and I worked on her birthday to-do list. We purchased frog napkins, a frog tablecloth, and frog favors. Frog-shaped sugar cookies were decorated to share at school, and she watched eagerly as her sister made her a birthday crown. Every so often, Clara would give me a squeeze and say, “I’m just so excited.”
“Anticipation is a wonderful emotion,” writes Pat Friesen, creative strategist. “It literally has us looking forward, not backwards, focusing on the possibility of good things to come.”
This is important because positive emotions about the future help build optimism, hope, faith, and trust. The more positive emotions you can develop the better, says Martin Seligman, author of the book Authentic Happiness. “Positive emotions build resilience. Over time, positive emotions build personal resources and increase well-being. Thus, positive emotions are not just markers of well-being, but they also produce it for the future.” Savoring the before creates happiness that creates future happiness.
My eldest daughter recently took a class trip to San Diego for four days. In the months leading up to the trip, Emma’s teacher talked to the students about what they were going to see, what it was going to be like, and how it was going to be different from what they were familiar with. He told me, “It helps to build up the idea of the trip for the kids beforehand. Otherwise they are overwhelmed by the newness of it all, and can’t appreciate being there.” He was easing them into the experience, building anticipation, and teaching them how to savor the before so they would be ready to embrace the during.
Being present and really sinking into the experience is the key to savoring the moment. Seligman says, “Let yourself get totally immersed and try not to think, just sense. Do not remind yourself of other things you should be doing, wondering what comes next, or consider the ways in which the event could be improved upon.”
In other words, be mindful of the moment.
My husband is the king of mindfulness. Despite spending the day in a stressful work environment, he walks through the door each evening, sheds his work tension, and fully immerses himself in our family. Part of why he is able to stay healthy mentally and physically is because he masterfully savors the moments of happiness in each and every day. His mind and his emotions are where his body is, which enables him to enjoy so much more in his life.
Seligman also recommends enhancing the during by “sharpening perceptions.” In other words, focusing on the positive and blocking out what is negative. This is tricky for my oldest daughter and me. Although we are great planners–we love the anticipation of an event–a perfectionism gene keeps us from appreciating the actual experience. We can become too attached to a particular idea of how an event should occur, and sometimes miss the fun of all that goes right.
Recently, Emma had a slumber party. She made four pages of notes as well as a separate grocery and supply list. She laid out everything in advance, drew a diagram of how the sleeping bags would best fit in her room, and generally whipped herself into a frenzy. The party was a success, but my daughter was a wreck for most of it, and it wasn’t just from the overconsumption of sugar. Things got off schedule and there wasn’t time for all three movies, we’d run out of licorice and Rolos by 10:00 p.m. (I’d hidden them), and she was outraged when I suggested at 1:00 a.m. that they really did need to get some sleep.
As Buddha says, attachment causes suffering. Wanting things to be a certain way, as opposed to how they are, will inevitably cause heartache and circumvent savoring.
One trick that could help Emma and me let go of focusing on the small negative details, is some self-congratulations during an event. Seligman suggests, “Don’t be afraid of a little pride.” Congratulate yourself on how well things are going, look around and pat yourself on the back because everyone is having a good time, and be impressed with how well you pulled it all off. Tell yourself, “Overall, this is going great!”
Clara has the art of self-congratulations down. At one point during her birthday dinner, when the conversation had veered towards adult talk, she lifted her glass and said, “Let’s hear it for the Birthday Girl!”
When I was four years old, our extended family went out to dinner at a local supper club. When it came time to order, I asked the waitress for a grilled cheese sandwich. The waitress was a dour old thing, and she snapped that they didn’t serve grilled cheese sandwiches. There was a small silence, then I asked her if they served cheeseburgers. “Yes,” she answered, and started to write my order on her pad.
“Well,” I said. “I’ll have a cheeseburger, skip the meat.” My relatives exploded with laughter. The waitress didn’t crack a smile, but I was served a perfect grilled cheese sandwich.
Or so the story goes. I, of course, don’t remember this event, but my grandmother has replayed this memory at every family gathering ever since. She even told it at the rehearsal dinner before my wedding. And every time, even though we’ve heard it a million times, we become hysterical all over again.
My grandmother knew how to savor the after through memory-building. This is a skill that my grandmother and mother share. Just this past Easter, my mother led us through a montage of happy Easter memories, one story leading to another. As she relayed each tale, stories that grow a bit with each retelling, the girls giggled and grinned, and I could tell they were experiencing the same warm feeling of happiness, of feeling loved and special, that I felt when my grandmother told the familiar family stories featuring me.
In strengthening our positive experiences, making them recall-ready, we are able to utilize these happy memories during difficult or trying times. This is important because recalling a positive experience floods our entire system with the same physical and psychological responses as during the actual event according to psychologist Daniel J. Tomasulo. He adds that “You might find that in picking up and savoring one image you may jump to another positive one.” This practice helps “generate a positive emotional piggybank that can be used to weaken and supplant negative thoughts.”
My husband and I did this often when we were exhausted new parents. We’d lay on our bed and play the “remember when” game. We’d take turns recalling details from past weekends spent in San Francisco, or relive a whirlwind visit to London. After about ten minutes of revisiting our pre-children travel highlights, we’d feel rejuvenated enough to get back up on our feet and resume our parenting roles.
There are already bits and pieces of Clara’s birthday that will be woven into our family memory tapestry. Such as the girls and their grandmother chasing recently purchased green birthday balloons across the parking lot, and the elaborate lettuce boiling operation undertaken to provide food for the tadpoles in the new tadpole tank.
This past weekend was all about celebrating Clara, but really, what my daughter does every day is remind us to celebrate, embrace, and elaborate on all the positive moments, large and small, in our lives. She teaches us that when you savor life, you live with joy.
Clara’s next birthday isn’t for another 51 weeks, but that won’t stop her from finding another event to savor. On the way to school this morning I heard her say to her older sister, “I can’t wait for your birthday, Emma. It’s in two months. Aren’t you excited! What are you going to pick for a theme?”