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Joy: How To Make It Last

First Posted: 08/05/2008 5:12 am Updated: 11/17/2011 8:02 am

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How we think and what we do can intensify, even prolong, the best moments in life. Here's how to tune in to the small stuff and reap huge rewards!

Rose Theis is the consummate amateur athlete. Some might call her a machine. At age 46, she is an Ironman triathlete, an experienced marathoner, and a year-round bicyclist--a notable feat for a resident of Madison, WI, where the winters are no joke.

In the summer, she thinks nothing of awakening before dawn for a swim in the cool waters of Madison's Lake Monona. She isn't stopped by minor pains or by driving rains. But a school of muskies jumping upstream to spawn...a clump of magnolias spreading their flowering arms...a hot-pink sunrise looming over a glassy lake--those are pleasures worth stopping for.

Theis understands implicitly what Loyola University Chicago social psychologist Fred B. Bryant, PhD, wishes he could impart to all of us: Finding joy means opening yourself up to it. The value of taking time to appreciate positive experiences seems obvious--trite, even. Yet it's a skill that few people have mastered. The reason is simple: We're busy, and we have a lot on our minds. There'll always be other sunrises, we say to ourselves, but if we don't hit the shower soon, we'll never beat the traffic to work. Under the weight of our daily responsibilities and worries, we reflexively tune out the fleeting, spontaneous events that can happen at any time and that, if we let them, could bring us deeper joy and greater health.

For more than 20 years, Bryant has worked to understand what he terms mindful savoring: the things we think and do to intensify or prolong positive feelings. "We all know people who are like this," Bryant says. "They're the life of the party, and they're the first people you want to turn to when something good happens. What is their gift?" Across the different cultures that Bryant has studied, women tend to possess this skill more often than do men.

Mindful savoring doesn't only enhance our feeling of well-being, Bryant notes. It may also improve health. A substantial body of related research indicates that people with a sunnier outlook about growing older recover more quickly from illness and live longer--7 1/2 years on average, according to a large Yale University study--than people who have bleaker views. People who scored highest on a test Bryant designed that measures savoring ability also reported fewer illnesses.

Needless to say, it's easiest to appreciate the good when fortune leans in our favor. But when we're ill or anxious or beset by tragedy, savoring positive events is all the more important. Happiness, Bryant says, broadens our perspective and helps us recognize ways to cope with adversity. "Bad things will come--we can't avoid them," he says. As many a poet has written, joy is fleeting, and elusive. "But if you know how, you can go hunting for it, and you can make it last."

Here are 10 surefire strategies that Bryant says everyone can use to discover pleasure and satisfaction in everyday moments:

1. Share positive feelings

Let your children know how great it feels to spend time with them. Tell your spouse about the compliment your boss paid you. E-mail your best friend to tell her how fondly you remember the camping trip you took last year, and include a silly picture. Sharing happy memories and experiences with others--or even simply anticipating doing so--is one of the most powerful and effective ways to prolong and magnify joy, Bryant's research shows. "It helps sustain emotions that would otherwise fade," he says. Affirming connections with others, he adds, is "the glue that holds people together."

2. Build memories

Take mental photographs of memorable moments that you can draw on later. Recall vivid, specific events, and pinpoint what brought you joy. Do you love your red wool scarf because it's stylish and warm, or because its smell reminds you of your childhood romps in the snow? Just be careful not to overanalyze and lose the wonder of the moment. What you want, says University of Virginia social psychologist Timothy D. Wilson, PhD, is to dissect your experiences just enough to appreciate how they've helped form you and then get back to simply living them. Interjecting mystery into happy moments--reflecting on what's surprising or hard to understand about them, for example--can strengthen their power. "If you analyze special times in a way that makes them seem ordinary or predictable, then you don't necessarily get as much benefit," Wilson says.

3. Congratulate yourself

Take pride in a hard-won accomplishment. If you spent a year sweating at the gym to reach a fitness goal, bask in your success--and share it with others. Self-congratulation doesn't come easily to everyone. "A lot of people have trouble basking in an accomplishment because they feel that they shouldn't toot their own horns or rest on their laurels," Bryant says. It's a fine line between joyous self-congratulation and shameless self-promotion, but don't worry: You'll know if you're crossing it.

4. Fine-tune your senses

Close your eyes while you roll a square of dark chocolate over your tongue or fill your lungs with salty sea air or eavesdrop on your grandchildren's play and laughter. Shutting out some sensory stimuli while concentrating on others can heighten your enjoyment of positive experiences--particularly those that are short-lived.

5. Compare downward

Comparing upward makes us feel deprived, but comparing downward can heighten enjoyment. Think about how things could be worse--or how things used to be worse. Just keep it light--you don't have to relive your cancer diagnosis or revel in a neighbor's misfortune. Simply take note: Is today sunnier than promised? Are you fitter than you were a year ago?

6. Get absorbed

Some joyful moments seem to call for conscious reflection and dissection. At other times, we savor best when we simply immerse ourselves in the present moment, without deliberate analysis or judgment. Listen to your favorite music with headphones in a dark room. Lose yourself in a novel. Set aside enough time on the weekend for your favorite hobby so you can attain a level of absorption known as the "flow" state.

7. Fake it till you make it

Putting on a happy face--even if you don't feel like it--actually induces greater happiness, says Bryant. So be exuberant. Don't just eat the best peach of the season--luxuriate in every lip-smacking mouthful. Laugh aloud at the movies. Smile at yourself in the mirror. After all, he says, "a surefire way to kill joy is to suppress it."

8. Seize the moment

Some positive events come and go quickly--a surprise toast to your accomplishments at work, your daughter's sweet 16 party. It seems obvious that the more quickly a positive experience evaporates, the more difficult it is to savor. Yet paradoxically, Bryant has found, reminding ourselves that time is fleeting and joy transitory prompts us to seize positive moments while they last.

9. Avoid killjoy thinking

The world has enough pessimists. Short-circuit negative thoughts that can only dampen enjoyment, such as self-recriminations or worries about others' perceptions. When you find yourself awash in happiness, give it space to grow--don't ruminate about why you don't deserve this good thing, what could go wrong, how things could be better. Consciously make the decision to embrace joy.

10. Say thank-you

Cultivate an "attitude of gratitude," Bryant says. Pinpoint what you're happy about--a party invitation, a patch of shade--and acknowledge its source. It's not always necessary to outwardly express gratitude, Bryant notes, but saying "thank you" to a friend, a stranger, or the universe deepens our happiness by making us more aware of it.

Originally published at Prevention.com.

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