John's Blog

The Blog of John Gibson, PhD


So the other day my daughter and I were sitting at a coffee shop in the middle of the afternoon, her eating a muffin and me drinking a cup hot chocolate. As it happens, we were sitting very close to a young man who was grinding coffee beans. Although I’m not a coffee drinker, I commented to my daughter that I liked the smell, and she agreed. But then she said, “If you really want a good smell trip, you should walk by Kilwin’s in the summer.”

(My daughter is in middle school. She says things like smell trip.)

I knew exactly what she walking about, of course. She and I have a shared fondness for chocolate.

Which is what got to me thinking about savoring.

We all know what the word means. But years ago, when I was at Loyola, I learned that Fred Bryant, a psychology professor there, had been studying the concept of savoring. So, being the good graduate student that I was, I hunted down a couple of his papers and read them. Mind you, these were research papers. Not exactly what you think of when you think of savoring. Now, however, years later, the savoring concept has found new life in the field of positive psychology.

Savoring is defined as “attending to, appreciating, and enhancing positive experience.”

Reading about it, and practicing about it, changed my life. Even though I read about years ago, it is one of the few things that I continue to do to this day.

I’m almost embarrassed to tell you some of things I savor. But I will. I savor the smell of a good used bookstore. I know several around the Chicago area, and whenever I walk into one, especially after not having been there for months, I inhale the smell of books.

I also have a special stone that sits on office desk. Picture an arrowhead only bigger–– more like a spearhead. Although it was given to me by my grandfather, its value to me is not sentimental. I like because of it’s shape and texture. Especially its texture. I savor the way the stone feels in my hand. Its rough edges and heft satisfy my sense of touch.

When you think of savoring, do you think only of food and taste? What Fred Bryant showed through his studies was that any virtually any positive experience could be savored. Even the memory of a positive event can be savored. Savoring is close to the experience of pleasure, but it’s not identical to it. Savoring is about drawing pleasure out, almost as if your suspending it your mind. If I eat ice cream, I experience pleasure. But if I eat it slowly, and let the sweetness of it linger in my mouth and mind, I’m savoring it.

And why, you ask, does savoring matter? Why make a big deal of it?

Well, for one thing, by enhancing positive experience, we buffer ourselves again stress. Maybe not hugely so, but just enough.

But there’s more to it than that, I think. We have a bias in our culture about looking towards the big events in our lives as the main sources of our happiness. Who among us, for instance, does not wish he or she could win the lottery? Of course this would make us feel good.

But what the savoring research has to tell us is that, when it comes to well-being, small experiences also matter. Indeed, I would argue that small experiences, because they are so common and so frequent, may even matter more than some than some big events. In my case, I remember certain key events in my life that made me feel good. The birth of my daughter is a prime example. But how often do things like that happen? In contrast, I savor something about the particulars of life almost every day.

We can savor any number of experiences. It’s not act of experiencing pleasure per se, but the act of attending closely to that pleasure, appreciating it, and dare I say elongating it.

Which is pretty much what I was doing that day I was sitting with my daughter in the coffee shop. The taste of the hot chocolate. The smell of the coffee beans being ground. The sound of daughter’s voice.