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Are we having fun yet? Practice Savoring this Holiday Season

Rainbow and unicorn in lights
"Unicorns & Rainbows" by Marie Jones. Re-use with permission only.

At this time of year, the pressure to be "happy" is everywhere--

"Merry Christmas"

"Happy Holidays"

"Hanukkah Sameach!"

"Joyous Kwanzaa"

"Happy New Year!"

My rebellious inner teenager says, "I don't wanna. You can't make me. It's cold, and dark, and I'm so tired." She wants to go to sleep after Thanksgiving dinner and wake up with the daffodils in early spring.

But my playful inner child loves Christmas, with all the lights and decorations. Shopping for other people, stuffing stockings, opening presents, Christmas music.

The holiday is so much happier for the child than the teenager. This year, I'm mindfully choosing my holiday experience, and I plan to savor the best of the season. Care to join me?

The Science of Savoring

Paying attention to, appreciating, and enhancing positive experiences in our lives is what psychologists Bryant and Veroff (2007) call "savoring." Savoring helps amplify a positive experience and crank it up to a higher level of enjoyment.

For example, let's say that you love caramel-filled milk chocolates. You might get a small box of these chocolates as a gift, thank the sender, and wolf down the treats while watching TV. You appreciate the gift and enjoy the chocolates, but you didn't savor them.

To savor those chocolates (my mouth is watering now!), you have to slow down. Let yourself anticipate the enjoyment. Unwrap the package slowly. Engage all of your senses. Smell the chocolate. When you do put the chocolate bit in your mouth, pay attention to the taste and the texture. Enjoy the crack of the chocolate shell and the liquid caramel melting on your tongue. Engage all your senses as you eat that delicious bite. Then take a moment to feel gratitude for the gift.

Research shows that people who practice savoring like this have a happier life overall. That doesn't mean the events in their life are objectively better. In fact, savoring helps people who have fewer positive experiences feel happier than those that have more good experiences that they don't savor. (Jose, Lim, & Bryant, 2012). That might be because savoring the good helps counterbalance the stressful and unpleasant emotions we have in life (Zautra, et al, 2005).

Past-Present-Future Savoring

Anticipate future experiences. Despite writing The Messy Planner, I'm not a natural-born planner. I started keeping a careful calendar to avoid negative consequences (missed deadlines and appointments), but what keeps me going is using the planning process to savor what might be. Yes, it's really daydreaming about possible futures. I love knowing that daydreaming is actually productive (so there, cranky elementary school teachers!)

The trick about this kind of savoring is to make sure you don't allow your anticipation to shift into expectation. That is, life seldom follows your envisioned plan but it often offers a bunch of happy moments you could never have anticipated. If you focus on what goes wrong when an event deviates from your plan, then you miss the surprisingly wonderful ways it goes right. It's all a matter of what you pay attention to.

Connect to the present moment. In the moment, pay attention to all of your senses, focusing on the positive elements of the experience. Let go of other, less pleasant elements and any expectations you might have had. If you don't normally "Ac-cent-tchu-ate The Positive," it might take a bit of practice to be able to gloss over those negative bits. But allowing yourself to be completely immersed and engaged in the experience can make it feel like time is slowing down to prolong the pleasure.

Reflect on positive events in the past. Reminiscing about positive holidays past and savoring those memories enhances wellbeing and happiness, too. Again, think about all of your senses.

I picture Christmas Eve church services, singing Silent Night by the light of flickering hand-held candles. The scent of wax, the rumble of the pipe organ, and voices singing in four-part harmony all play a part in my reminiscence. I also know that those elements might not be part of a single memory but a collage of dozens of Christmases. I'm okay with that. Just as I am able to be fluid in my anticipation of the future, I know that memory is always selective. I just choose---in these moments---to focus on the positive.

Savoring the Holidays

Holiday traditions tie past to present and future and can be used to enhance positive experiences.

One of my favorite holiday traditions revolves around putting ornaments on the tree. We pull up a Christmas playlist, pour a glass of eggnog for each of us, and go through the box of ornaments. As we put them on the tree, we remind each other of the stories each ornament represents. The crumbling styrofoam ball with random ribbons is my kindergarten artwork, half a century old now. I recall my search for the brunette angel that first topped my solo trees in the 90s. (I swear that every china angel was blonde) Once the tree is decorated, we’ll light it up and simply sit with the beauty, the memories, and the anticipation of the coming holiday.

Note that holiday traditions do the opposite of what we are intending if they trigger past traumas. Even in the same family, individuals have different experiences of past events. My brother has very negative associations with Christmas celebrations and big family dinners; my sister has happy memories of the exact same events. Communicating with your family (of biology or choice) and consciously choosing or creating traditions can enhance everyone's experiences.

Share the joy with loved ones. Including other people in your reminiscence or retelling of a pleasurable experience can also amplify positive emotions. QuListening to shared stories about past events or future plans is another savoriing activity. Asking questions at a family gathering about "What's your favorite part of our celebrations" can remind everyone of positive details about those activities.

Build memories for future savoring. Intentionally creating memories can involve physical objects like journals, scrapbooks, or photography, or they can involve rehearsing the event in your mind to take a mental snapshot of the most pleasurable parts of the moment.

Rock around the Christmas tree. Letting your physical body express your enjoyment is another savoring strategy. Laughing, clapping, dancing, or singing are all ways of expressing joy that feel good, deep down..

Express your gratitude verbally. When you open those socks from Great Aunt Gertrude, don't stop at a perfunctory "thank you." Dig a little deeper for your gratitude. Share with her how soft the socks are and how cozy they will keeping your toes warm. Or let her know that last year's socks are your favorite pair and are almost worn out already, so you look forward to this pair becoming the new favorite.

Write thank you notes. It may seem old-fashioned, but the act of writing a thank you note makes you slow down and savor the gift you were given. Sharing that enjoyment with the person who gave you the gift feels good, too. This year, I plan to take some time for hand-written thank yous, since we wI will be spending the holiday away from family. I look forward to taking that time feeling and expressing my gratitude for each gift.

If your holidays are often unhappy

This isn’t “toxic positivity.” In positive psychology, theory about savoring is related to that of coping. It doesn't ignore that negative things happen in life or that people need to deal with that negativity.

For those of you dealing with painful holiday memories, working through those experiences is vital, and can help you make room for joy in the midst of darkness.

Healthy coping practices can help you deal with the stressors exacerbated at this time of year. If you haven't cut off Crazy Uncle Fred from your family celebrations despite the fact that he makes your skin crawl, focusing on present, positive experiences is just one method you might choose to help you cope.


Recommended reading:

If you are on a journey to make room for joy this holiday season, I highly recommend this piece by Pockett Dessert, a Medium writer/photographer I deeply admire: Time Travel: Recapture The Holiday Magic, Joy of The Season


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