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Happiness: Why Savoring The Present is Good for Your Health -- And Your Wallet

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I'm a big proponent of something I'm going to dub the "slow living" movement.

In a nutshell, it's about slowing down.

Studies show that when you slow down, you'll be more likely to stop and help someone in need (see this). But there's another benefit to slowing down -- it's not only good for others, it's good for us. Slowing down helps us savor the present. And savoring has been directly tied to happiness.

What Is Savoring?

Savoring is the ability to prolong and stretch enjoyment or positive emotional experiences. It's the difference between wolfing down a meal versus lingering over every bite. It relates to how much time you spend sitting in front of a sunset (if you even stop at all).

Scientists have consistently found that the ability to savor promotes happiness (see here or here). Which makes sense. The more you can prolong positive emotional experiences, the more positive emotions are filling up your day. In fact, the tendency to savor benefits individuals across the lifespan: studies show it predicts the subjective well-being for grade school children, adolescents, college students and the elderly.

Savoring is also one of the best tricks for maximizing your finances, because you are getting more happiness for the buck -- for the same experience, product or expense. Which leads us to the ironic point ...

Money Gets in the Way of Savoring

A study published in 2009 from a group of international psychologists hailing from Canada, England and Belgium found that money actually impairs people's ability to savor everyday positive experiences.

The researchers set out to understand why study after study shows that wealth doesn't correspond with happiness.They conducted two studies, and both confirmed that wealth corresponds with lower savoring ability.

Participants with a higher income scored lower on a test of savoring. Oddly enough, even a prompting of thinking about money corresponded with lower savoring ability. The researchers found that participants who were shown pictures of foreign currency before they ate pieces of chocolate "spent significantly less time eating the chocolate and displayed significantly less enjoyment" than those who had seen another neutral image.

Why does wealth impair our ability to savor? The researchers aren't quite sure. They surmise that focusing on the grand experiences of life (visiting the pyramids of Egypt, taking a spa vacation) impacts our ability to appreciate all the smaller things in life, like the taste of our coffee or a fresh breeze. And let's face it, our lives are filled with a lot more of the smaller things than anything else.

There's another theory I have, which is that time and money are often related and triggering thoughts of money causes people to think about productivity, which causes them to move more quickly. The time spent on something is directly related to how much we savor it.

How to Savor

Savoring (and slowing down, for that matter) was never a concept that came naturally to me. Up until recently, I've rushed through most of life. I talk fast, eat fast, get things done quickly, and have always been impatient (why is that file taking so long to download?).

Luckily, savoring is a pretty easy concept to cultivate. After reading this study, I intentionally tried some of these techniques myself for a recent trip to Iceland, and I can honestly say these helped me maximize the happiness I derived from the trip.

These are the four common strategies for savoring, identified by researchers. They can be used alone or in combination:

1. Anticipate the thing/event: Typically I don't dwell too much on a trip before I depart. I tend to focus on getting things taken care of before I leave, and exhale once I'm at the airport past security. But this time, I decided to build anticipation for the trip -- I talked to friends about it, downloaded some Icelandic music, and had lunch with my travelmates to plan activities. All of this went really far toward feeling excitement for the trip for weeks in advance up until the day of departure.


2. Stay present and appreciate the current thing/event:
When you're traveling, it's easy to get caught up in memorializing everything, from taking pictures to writing in a journal to posting updates to Twitter or Facebook. But you can spend more time trying to capture the moment than enjoying it (a little ironic, considering the memorialization is supposed to capture experience). In Iceland, I tried to fully soak in whatever I was experiencing -- feeling the misty spray from the Gullfoss waterfall on my face, savoring the taste of the famous Icelandic hot dogs, slathering on the mud from the Blue Lagoon -- before I took out the camera. As a result, every moment seemed so much more vivid.

3. Reminisce about the past thing/event and relish the memory: When I got home, I kept the memories of Iceland alive and strong. It was fun to reminisce about all of our experiences, which we did for weeks. I also bought a cute Icelandic knotted pillow, which is now center stage on my couch and is a fond reminder of Iceland. I pinned up a postcard above my desk, changed my screensaver on my phone to a beautiful shot of Hallgrimskirkju church, and even decided to dive into a book by Nobel Prize winning Icelandic author Halldor Laxness.

4. Talk about it/share with others (at every stage): Sharing at every stage (anticipation, experience, reminiscence) helps enhance our enjoyment--this can mean talking to others, writing about it or sharing on social media. My travelmates and I enthused about the trip at every meal, sharing our favorite experiences. I tweeted about Iceland for weeks afterwards, and through social media found some Iceland-goers to share travel experiences with. Other friends posted their photos to Flickr. In fact, I raved about Iceland until I'm certain my friends were tired of hearing about it ... but hey, I never felt happier savoring.

Keep in mind: I was only in Iceland for three full days. The flight was $499 and lodging (via an Airbnb apartment) was only $40 a night, but the amount of pleasure I derived from that trip was exponential--worth a trip many times that cost.

* * *

There's plenty we can savor, big and small -- from taking a trip to buying that super-soft cashmere sweater to really enjoying that molten chocolate cake. Each small pleasure in life can be lingered over to produce more happiness for our buck. And let's not forget all the free savoring, like smelling a flower or feeling that first spring sunlight on our face.

And I'm going to add one more tip to this list: SLOW DOWN. Slowing down will help us all savor the moments of life better. The study showed a direct correlation between the time someone spent eating a piece of chocolate and the satisfaction they derived from it.

So let's make a commitment to linger, savor and relish. Slowing down will enhance all the small moments of our lives -- which, really, is no small thing.

(See photos of me savoring on my Iceland trip here)