The mood-boosting effect of savoring the moment in the face of uncertainty

At a time when levels of global confusion remain unpredictably high, new research reveals a surprising benefit to dealing with uncertainty: it can help people savor the positives of the present.

Jordi Quoidbach

In a paper published by the American Psychological Association, Andrew L. Gregory, (School of Social Ecology, University of California), Jordi Quoidbach (Department of People Management and Organization, Esade), Claudia M. Haase (School of Education and Social Policy, Northwestern University) and Paul K. Piff (Department of Psychology, Northwestern University), describe how savoring the moment really does help people feel more positive. 

The study contributes to a growing body of evidence suggesting that negative life experiences may help to promote well-being. And, although the researchers stress they don’t believe experiences of uncertainty should be promoted or have unmitigated psychological benefits, they do say the results provide an unexpected upside in response to global events

The phrase that launched a thousand memes

‘Savor the moment’ is a phrase often used to encourage us to value the seemingly insignificant moments in life: stopping to inhale a particularly fragrant flower; admiring the natural glory of a sunrise or sunset; eating mindfully to appreciate every tasty morsel of a meal.  

In more scientific terms, ‘savoring’ is an emotion regulation strategy that allows us to deliberately enhance the positive effects of simple acts. The benefits to health and wellbeing have been well documented by academic research, extolled by physical and mental health practitioners, and spawned a thousand memes and fridge magnets.  

Savoring is an emotion regulation strategy that allows us to deliberately enhance the positive effects of simple acts

Yet, despite the ubiquitous nature of the phrase, there has been surprisingly little research into what enhances ‘savoring the moment’. In particular, the researchers were interested in examining the impact of uncertainty on enhancing a person’s ability to do just that. If anxiety and distress triggered by chaos and uncertainty can be mitigated by emotional regulation and coping strategies, could experiencing uncertainty enhance subsequent levels of savoring? 

The science of savoring

In their journal article ‘Be Here Now: Perceptions of Uncertainty Enhance Savoring’, the team of researchers conducted three studies to discover the conditions that could encourage moment-savoring. They examined the idea that those who saw the world as random and unpredictable had a greater ability to stop and appreciate small pleasures, thus achieving greater levels of positivity.  

The first study used a mobile application created to assess the well-being of 6,680 participants using brief surveys. The second involved a final sample of 398 participants who were shown one of three videos before answering a series of questions. The final study was a field experiment involving 201 random individuals on a busy California street. 

Each study was carefully designed to include sizable samples, diverse methods and robust checks and controls. All study materials, analysis code, and data are available on the Open Science Framework. 

In the face of uncertainty

The first study surveyed participants using questions delivered to their mobile phones via push notifications. Participants were asked to rate their responses to three questions on a scale of 0 (not at all) to 100 (very much). The questions were: “At this very moment, how chaotic and unpredictable does the world feel to you?”; “Were you currently savoring the present moment?”; and “How happy do you currently feel?”  

The study suggests that those who perceive the world as unpredictable have a greater ability to appreciate small pleasures

The results revealed that levels of uncertainty were linked to subsequent savoring. However, savoring and uncertainty were negatively related when measured concurrently, indicating that participants used savoring as a coping mechanism while feeling uncertain

The association between uncertainty and savoring appeared to decrease over longer measurements of time, suggesting a time limit on the positive impact due to savoring behavior being used as an immediate coping response. 

Organizing chaos

Whether uncertainty was the direct cause of the increase in savoring was explored in the second study. Participants were randomly assigned one of three videos: the first portrayed the future as uncertain and unpredictable, the second as certain and predictable, and the third was a control video.  

Voiceovers told viewers that life events were either largely random or had an underlying order. Graphics on the ‘random’ voiceover were accompanied by rolling dice and chaotic graphs, with dominoes and structural patterns on the ‘order’ video. 

Participants were then asked to score a series of questions and statements, including: “In your opinion, how predictable are the events in our lives?”, “I should try to savor the simple things in life”, “I should try to enjoy the present moment as much as possible”, and “I want to keep feeling good as long as I can”.  

Savoring may dampen the threat of uncertainty and help to restore a sense of calm and coherence

The results were consistent with those of study one: perceptions of uncertainty can cause increased savoring tendencies.  

Stop and smell the roses

In the final study, individuals walking down a busy California street were handed flyers by smiling volunteers. All fliers bore identical images of a black and white rose with the captions “Stop and smell the roses” and “Sponsored by the UC Berkeley [University of California, Berkeley] Student Alliance for Vitality and Rejuvenation”. Half of the fliers prominently displayed the words “Life is unpredictable”, the other half “Life is constant.”  

Further down the street was a table of roses manned by two friendly and smiling volunteers, with a large sign displaying the “Stop and smell the roses” flier. Participants handed the “Life is unpredictable” flier were significantly more likely to stop and smell the flowers: compelling evidence that perceptions of uncertainty can lead directly to acting more positively in the present. 

The experiment was managed with appropriately controlled conditions and monitored by data coders to ensure accuracy. 

Taken as a whole, the researchers say their studies reveal that savoring may dampen the threat of uncertainty and help to restore a sense of calm and coherence. Future research, they conclude, may help to uncover the types of uncertainty that elicit the maximum amounts of positive emotion. 

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