Mental & Emotional Health

The Science of Savoring Positive Emotions

Savoring a beautiful sunset and the positive emotions associated with it can contribute to improved well-being, according to research. But why and how are some people better than others in keeping the feeling alive? That’s what the authors of a study published in July 2015 in The Journal of Neuroscience set out to discover.

A release from the University of Wisconsin-Madison quotes Aaron Heller, former graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Investigating Healthy Minds (CIHM) at the Waisman Center and current assistant professor of psychology at the University of Miami, as saying, “It’s important to consider not just how much emotion you experience, but also how long these emotions persist. We’re looking at how one person can savor a great deal from that beautiful sunset or a memorable meal, but how another person who might be susceptible to depression can’t savor that sunset and those positive emotions subside quickly.”

The findings suggest that the duration of activity in specific circuits of the brain, even over relatively short periods of time such as seconds, can predict the persistence of a person’s positive emotion minutes and hours later. The results and the study’s unique design contribute to a growing understanding of how mental disorders such as depression might be manifested in the brain. Depression affects more than 350 million people globally, according to the World Health Organization.

The release notes that until now, researchers have examined savoring and the impact of emotions on individuals either in the laboratory or in a real-world setting, but not in both with the same people and prompts. Heller says the study is one of the first of its kind to take the same experiment from the lab into the field while linking emotion responses in both settings to neural activity in the brain.

Over the course of the study, roughly 100 adult participants played a short guessing game and answered questions about their emotions when prompted by a smartphone over a 10-day period. The guessing game provided participants with the following instructions: “The computer chose the number 5. Please guess whether the next number will be higher or lower than 5.”

Participants would win money or win nothing based on their response. Winning was intended to give people bursts of positive emotion, while not winning was intended to create negative feelings. In addition, Heller and colleagues wanted to learn how long these emotions lingered after the game, so they asked a series of questions on average every 15 minutes afterward to get a sense of whether people were savoring positive or negative emotion — or neither.