An Experiment in How to Get (and Keep) that Happy Feeling

Updated: Feb 13

Recent research has found that we may be able to get more joy and happiness out of our days if we view our time in a certain place or with a certain person, as limited.

In an experiment published in The Journal of Positive Psychology, researchers from the USA and the UK randomly assigned participants to one of two groups:

  1. The “Live this Month” group, in which participants were told to consider all the reasons they liked where they lived and worked, and to enjoy the next month like it was their last in their current city.

  2. A control group, in which participants simply kept track of their daily activities.

When participant's wellbeing was measured two weeks after the experiment ended, the researchers found participants who "lived this month" had more positive emotions, fewer negative emotions, and increased life satisfaction, compared to participants in the control group.

The results showed that wellbeing increased for people who "lived this month" because they were fulfilling three core psychological needs:

  • Relatedness: Feeling closer and more connected to others.

  • Autonomy: Feeling in control of one's own actions.

  • Competence: Feeling skilled and effective.

According to Self-determination Theory, satisfaction of these three core needs promotes optimal motivation and wellbeing

Practical Implications

The results of the experiment suggest two important strategies to increase wellbeing:

1. Plan and Engage in Activities you Enjoy

It sounds simple, but ask yourself, If you only had 30 days left in the city you live, what would you do? What friends or family would you spend your time with?”

A Note for those with Depression:

The strategy of planning and engaging in activities you enjoy is a psychological strategy used by psychologists for treating depression, called behavioural activation.

Behavioural activation involves planning and increasing pleasant activities in your life, as well as activities that result in a sense of mastery and achievement.

Depression can prevent people from doing the things they enjoy in life. This may be due to a lack of motivation, energy, interest, or the fact that the things you used to enjoy no longer bring you any pleasure. Behavioural activation research shows that scheduling and engaging in simple pleasant activities, such as visiting your favourite café or restaurant, organising dinner with friends, playing sport, being in nature, and activities that make you feel more in control of your life, such as finishing a work project, fixing something around the house, paying off debts, can improve your mood and energy levels. The idea is to start with small easy steps and begin with things that you can do. Seeing a psychologist can help you with behavioural activation.

“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”
― Mother Theresa

2. Savour Positive Experiences

The study results suggest that planning and completing activities you have previously enjoyed may not be sufficient to increase wellbeing. Participants who "lived this month" were told to take time to enjoy the activities they had planned.

To appreciate positive events and experiences, psychologists use a technique called savouring.

Savouring: The capacity to attend to, appreciate, and enhance the positive experiences in one’s life

Savouring is a type of emotion regulation strategy and involves the use of cognitive and behavioural strategies. Savouring is similar to mindfulness, in that they both involve the effortful direction of attention, and their use is associated with greater wellbeing and less depression. However, while mindfulness brings attention to the good, the bad, and the neutral, savouring only responds to the pleasant aspects of experiences. In addition, while mindfulness views experiences in a non-judgmental manner, savouring involves responding to positive experiences with the intention of amplifying and prolonging the positive emotions associated with these experiences.

Savouring aims to amplify and prolong positive emotions for the benefit of our mental health.

Savouring is important because positive emotions, such as joy, gratitude, and interest, are typically short lived. What's more, these pleasant emotions are often less intense and attention grabbing than unpleasant emotions such as anger, fear, and sadness, which tend to have a prolonged hold on us.

Techniques to Savour a Positive Experience

To increase and prolong a positive experience, research indicates that the following savouring strategies can help:

1. Sharing with others: Share positive events and experiences with others who will share in your joy. Sharing with others is the single strongest predictor of level of enjoyment of an experience.

Photo by Katie Treadway
“Happiness is the only thing that multiplies when you share it.”
– Albert Schweitzer

2. Memory building: Take the time to note the details of a positive event in order to build a strong memory of the experience. Take a “mental photo" or a physical souvenir and reminisce about the event later with others.

3. Self-congratulation: If your positive experience relates to a personal accomplishment - don't be afraid of pride. Tell yourself how proud you are. Remind yourself of all the hard work you've put in and how long you’ve waited for this to happen.

4. Absorption: Try to focus on simply experiencing the positive event as it is unfolding, and be totally immersed or engrossed in the good moments. Try to avoid judging the event, or reflecting on the event, as it is happening.

5. Sharpening sensory-perceptions: Intensify experiences by focusing on the important sensations (i.e., sights, sounds, smells, tastes, or touch), and blocking out unrelated senses and distractions. For example, close your eyes when listening to music.

6. Behavioural expression: Physical expressions of positivity - such as smiling, laughing, jumping, dancing - can intensify positive feelings. Give it a go!

7. Avoid “killjoy” thinking: Avoid thinking about ways the experience could be better… or other things you should be doing... Killjoy thinking interferes with savouring, and can cut short your enjoyment of a positive experience.

8. Temporal awareness: Remind yourself that this experience won’t last forever, even though you want it to, and you must enjoy it now. Remind yourself how grateful you are for the experience. This strategy may be appropriate for rare and bittersweet experiences.

Imagine you've planned to go and watch a sunset. If you shrug off the sunset, thinking, “I’ve seen better” or “I’d have a better view from a different spot”, or get distracted by the person speaking loudly next to you, or by the buzzing of your phone in your pocket; then your enjoyment of the sunset will be compromised.

However, if you take the time to notice the beautiful pastel hues of orange and yellow around the sun, the streaks of purple and red, and tell yourself, “This sunset will only happen once, you have to enjoy it now”, and you're able to bring your attention back to noticing the changing colours after any momentary distraction, and turn to smile with the person next to you once the sun has set: then, you are savouring.

"Oh, I've had moments, and if I had to do it all over again, I'd have more of them. In fact, I'd try to have nothing else. Just moments, one after another, instead of living so many years ahead of each day"

- Nadine Stair (85 years old)

Share your experiences savouring below!


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