Are you finding the holiday season more stressful than joyful? If so, you’re not alone. Many people find themselves stressed out over the holidays—especially women, who often take on trying to fulfill family expectations of decorating, gift buying, and preparing special holiday meals. Financial constraints can make things worse.

Grandmother hugging granddaughter, with Christmas tree and family in the background

The winter holidays can also be hard for other reasons. If you’ve experienced a recent divorce or lost a loved one and are facing the holidays without them, you may feel particularly lonely or depressed at this time of year. 

What to do? While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, many things can help, like lowering your expectations, practicing self-compassion, and reaching out to others for support. But along with managing the negative aspects of the holidays, it’s also important to nurture the positive, too. That’s where savoring comes into play.

The science of savoring

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What is savoring? Well, it’s more than just having a pleasant feeling, according to researcher Fred Bryant of Loyola University Chicago, who has been studying savoring for decades. Many of us enjoy things, he says—like a beautiful sunset, delicious meal, or party. Savoring requires a step beyond that: being conscious of that good feeling and allowing it to expand within you.

“You attend to the feelings that you’re having in response to the stimulus, or the pleasant feelings that you’ve noticed, and actually spend some time with them,” he says. “Otherwise they’re vague and fleeting.”

Savoring requires slowing down enough to recognize what’s happening inside of you during a pleasant experience, labeling it, and appreciating it, he says. Unlike mindfulness, which also involves “being in the moment,” savoring is about augmenting the positive rather than accepting “what is.”

There’s a cognitive component to savoring, says Bryant, that works against taking good feelings for granted. For example, if you meet a friend for coffee at a cafe, he suggests deliberately thinking not just about the taste of coffee, but how lucky you are to have that friend in your life, the ability to walk to the coffee shop, or the freedom to be out in the world at all.

“The appreciation is where the art comes in,” says Bryant. “You can train yourself to be highly sensitive to noticing, then train yourself not to push away those pleasant feelings or be distracted.”

Savoring can involve other people or not. For example, you can listen to a favorite song and reminisce about where you were when you first heard it and savor the nostalgia it brings. But, says Bryant, savoring often does involve other people, and that can make it even more powerful.

“When something good happens, often the next step is to want to share it with someone,” he says. “The surest way to kill a positive emotion is to hold onto it, inhibit it, and not express it. To express it is to intensify it.”

What savoring can do for us

Lest this sound too “Pollyanna” or simple to you, Bryant says that decades of his and others’ research point to how powerful savoring can be for our happiness and overall well-being.

“The data show that when a good thing happens, the more people actively savor it, the more joy they get from it in the moment,” he says.

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Savoring positive experiences doesn’t just bring momentary joy; it can also buffer us against hard times, reducing our stress. It can help us prevent depression, recover better from an illness, and adjust better to aging. And savoring has been found to help with addiction recovery, helping people recognize that pleasant feelings produced without drinking or drugs can be consciously augmented.

Savoring helps with our relationships, too. Bryant points to Jessica Borelli’s work suggesting how savoring strengthens relationships by helping people feel closer to one another—even during times of separation. Adolescents who savor more are happier, and it can help improve family functioning.

Part of the benefits of savoring come not only from noticing the positive, but from verbalizing your appreciation. 

“To be sensitive to joy, you need to turn up the amplifier,” he says.

Savoring the positive during the holidays

Savoring can happen any time of year, and Bryant doesn’t recommend restricting savoring to the holidays alone. But if you’re looking for some holiday-related ways to practice savoring, you may try these: 

Pay attention to sensual pleasures. The smell of a pine tree, the taste of a crispy latke, the feel of a warm blaze of fire, the sparkling of new fallen snow, or the uplifting sound of music. Sensual pleasures like these are often part of the holiday season, making them easily accessible for savoring—with just a little effort.

Instead of rushing through them or passing them by on your way to doing something “more important,” stop. Give yourself a moment to take in what you’re sensing. Allow yourself a few slow breaths; maybe sit down to better soak it in. Take a picture or recording, if you like. Think about how lucky you are to be alive and experience these wonderful things. Savoring sensual pleasures like these is bound to make time slow down, reduce your stress, and bring more happiness to the moment.

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Appreciate your social connections. For many of us, the holidays are a time to remember friends and family. And that means there are opportunities to make others a part of your savoring experience.

There are different ways to do this, depending on your situation. Maybe you’ll want to take a picture or video of whatever you’re savoring and send it to a friend. Or you might attend a holiday concert with a group of strangers and savor the experience of collective joy. Or you could invite your romantic partner to sit in front of the fire and just stare into the flames together. Finding ways to share joy with others can be a nice way to enhance the experience.

Of course, not every social occasion is pleasant. But even in the midst of a not-so-great experience, there are ways to be more open to the good (which helps the bad feel less problematic).

“You could actually have a kind of dialogue with yourself where you’re saying, ‘This feels good, or this is beautiful, this is wonderful.’ You need to be aware. You’ve got to give yourself permission to feel good,” says Bryant.

On the other hand, if you’re alone for the holidays, maybe because of losing a loved one, you may feel that loss more keenly and not find much to savor. While grief is particularly painful, says Bryant, he still recommends trying to savor social connection in other ways, to help you cope.

One thought would be to reach out to an old friend you haven’t seen in a while and let them know that you’re thinking of them, that you value them. You might also call a neighbor who’s alone this season and offer to have tea together. Sometimes taking the focus off of yourself or showing a bit of gratitude for another person can help shift feelings in a more positive direction.

Make the most of gift-giving and other rituals. For some, the holidays mean that presents are exchanged, and many families have other specific rituals. Savoring can mean slowing things down enough to really tap into the joys of giving and receiving, as well as the meaning imbued into shared traditions.

For example, in my own, family, we like to take turns unwrapping gifts on Christmas morning (instead of everyone just sitting in their own corner ripping off paper). Each gift opening is an opportunity for savoring and gratitude, which we often enhance by taking pictures and sending them off to our faraway relatives. After opening presents, we finish our morning with a ritual of brunch with ginger pancakes and bacon—treats we reserve for this time of year—and take a walk in the hills together before Christmas dinner.

You may have your own rituals for the holidays—perhaps ones you don’t give much thought to so they’ve become rote. But rituals can be a lovely way to savor the moment, because they help imbue it with meaning. And they often inspire anticipation beforehand, as well as fond recollections later on. Anticipating and reminiscing can add to your pleasure, says Bryant, as long as they don’t lead to unrealistic expectations or disappointment when you’re in the present moment.

Savoring may not be for everyone all the time

While a fan of savoring, Bryant doesn’t suggest that people completely ignore the hard realities of life—or of the holidays. If you’re suffering, it may be tougher to find the positive in any situation, let alone augment it.

“I would never suggest that all life is a bed of roses and that you just savor all the time; you also have to cope,” says Bryant.

But, he adds, most people think that they can’t enjoy life at all until all of the bad stuff goes away, and that’s just not realistic. There will always be pain and hardship in the world, he says, and savoring positive things is not the same as denying that.

“Saying that the world is all negative is as bad as saying it’s all positive. The world is both,” he says.

We should recognize that we humans have a negativity bias and take steps to fight it. Like psychologist Rick Hanson is fond of saying, our “brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.” That means we need to be more actively savoring the positive, says Bryant.

Still, not everyone will necessarily benefit equally from savoring experiences. In some cultures, for example, says Bryant, people tend to value calm and peace over ebullience and believe that extreme happiness may lead to tragedy later on. 

“There’s a sense of the inevitability of change and a balance that’s in every moment, so that the more positive something is, the more negative the counterpart will have to be to counterbalance that eventually,” he says.

But if it feels right to you, why not try a little savoring this holiday season? It may just be the thing that helps turn your holiday from a mediocre event into a more joyful, meaningful experience.

“Seek out the positive. Look for the joy. Recognize that the time spent with loved ones is precious. Don’t take anything for granted,” he says.

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