Joy: Make It Last

Finding happiness means opening yourself up to it

The value of taking time to appreciate positive experiences seems obvious—yet it's a skill few people have mastered. The reason is simple: we're busy and we have a lot on our minds. 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, Dr Fred B Bryant (PhD) from Loyola University Chicago in the US has worked to understand what he terms 'mindful savouring': the things we think and do to intensify or prolong positive feelings. "We all know people who practise this well," Bryant says. "They're the life of the party, and they're the first people you want to turn to when something good happens."

Here are 9 sure-fire 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 partner about the compliment your boss gave you. Email your best friend to tell her how fondly you remember the bushwalk you took together 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 as they happen so you can later draw on them. Also, recall vivid events and pinpoint those specific elements that brought you joy. Analyse your experiences enough to enable you to work out why and how they were impactful, then get back to simply living them, says Dr Russ Harris, psychotherapist and author of The Happiness Trap: Stop Struggling, Start Living ($29.99; Exisle Publishing). "If you think back only fleetingly on special times, rather than seek to extract more meaning from them, you don’t necessarily benefit as much," he says.

3. Congratulate Yourself

Take pride in a hard-won achievement. If you've spent a year sweating it out at the gym to reach a fitness goal, celebrate your success—and share it with others. Self-congratulation doesn't come easily to everyone, especially Aussie women who can be reticent to big-note themselves. "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. There'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. Become Absorbed

Some joyful moments seem to call for conscious reflection and inspection. At other times, we savour best when we simply immerse ourselves in the present moment, without deliberate analysis or judgement. Listen to your favourite music through headphones in a dark room. Lose yourself in the latest Tim Winton novel. Set aside enough time on the weekend for your favourite hobby so you can attain a level of absorption known as 'flow'. This state of consciousness occurs when an enjoyable activity or situation engrosses you so deeply that time flies and you experience an extreme, almost euphoric satisfaction.

5. Compare With Darker Times

'Comparing upwards'—such as when you size up the current state of a relationship versus the way you felt during the first flush of love—can make you feel deprived. But 'comparing downwards' 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 neighbour's misfortune. Simply take note: is today sunnier than promised? Are you fitter than you were a year ago?

6. Seize The Moment

Some positive events come and go quickly—a surprise toast to your accomplishments at work, your daughter's 18th birthday party. It seems obvious that the more quickly a joyous experience evaporates, the more difficult it is to savour. Yet paradoxically, Bryant has found, reminding ourselves that time is fleeting, and joy transitory, prompts us to seize happy moments while they last.

7. 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 and how things could be better. Consciously make the decision to embrace joy.

8. Fine-Tune Your Senses

Close your eyes while you roll a piece of dark chocolate over your tongue, or while you fill your lungs with salty sea air. Shutting out some sensory stimuli while concentrating on others can heighten your enjoyment of positive experiences—particularly those that are short-lived. To develop this skill, next time you eat something, do so as if you're a curious scientist who has never tasted anything like it before, says Harris. "See if you can notice something new about it, such as its changing taste and texture from bite to bite, and whereabouts on the tongue the taste is most intense."

9. 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.

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