When we imagine a positive future, we imagine ourselves enjoying that future. We just assume that we will enjoy the situation we foresee – the place, the people, the activities. In other words, we see ourselves savoring the event. Unfortunately, many times, when we approach that future, we do not experience the joy we anticipated. We fail to savor. SMART Strengths provides guidance on how to savor (basking , marveling, luxuriating, thanksgiving), but our new driveway reminded me of the need to remember to savor. Can’t apply the “how” if we never remember to start!
The driveway at our new house is 200 yards long. It is flat, graveled, and flanked by cherry, walnut and other trees. That 200 yards, and the sense of isolation that comes with it, was one of the things that first attracted Teresa and I to this lot. Our home in Nashville – the house where we raised our boys – had a similar quality. Hills and trees on two sides, and trees on the third, meant that we could sit in the sunroom in the back of our house in the summer and not be able to see another house. Since we both love nature, looking out at woods was a real pleasure for us, and we often lamented that the builder of that house had not done more (i.e., more windows!) to take advantage of that view. Instead, he had simply built the standard design for that subdivision, and it really failed to capitalize on the lot. When we thought of moving to the Louisville, KY, area to be closer to our boys and their families, we anticipated that replacing that sense of isolation would be unlikely – there just aren’t many lots like that! However, in our first foray of house-looking, our realtor showed us this lot. Wow. It was part of a larger parcel that had been subdivided by the children of the original owner and two had already built on their lots. But the third had decided not to move back to Kentucky and was selling the lot. As our realtor pulled off the street and eased over the land that is now our driveway, Teresa and I both started to perk up. We had already looked at a number of houses, none had grabbed us, and we were really becoming aware of how much our view had meant to us. We got out of our car, looked around at the lot where our house now sits, looked at each other and immediately knew. This lot would work. We wanted it. And, with great good fortunate, we were able to buy it.
Over the next couple of months, as we found a builder, drew up plans, and signed a contract, we would need to be at the lot for one reason or another periodically. Each time we would ease down the strip that would be our driveway, and each time I would appreciate what it gave us. We even sent a video clip of pulling down what was to be our drive out to family to help them visualize what we were doing! On one occasion, we were there with our younger son and his girlfriend and spent time picking cherries, blackberries, and raspberries from the trees and shrubs along the drive. The jam from those fruits held special meaning. (Can you tell I grew up on a farm? Something about that created some strong ties to land!) So, along the way, that driveway was acquiring more and more meaning.
Finally, as fall became winter, we were in! We subscribed to the paper (more on that in another post!),
and part of my morning ritual became a walk down that 200-yard driveway to get the paper. As you can probably imagine, the first walk was special. I savored the path, remembering the special times we had already had, enjoying the place and the home we had built, and anticipating the future here. As the next few days went by, I continued to enjoy this morning ritual, at least until the weather turned! One morning, I got up, got our old dog, and went out to enjoy that walk to the end of the driveway, and was hit by a cold, rainy wind! It was NOT pleasant. It was nasty. Almost immediately, my anticipation vanished and was replaced by irritation. “Yuck,” I thought. “This isn’t any fun. Wish the driveway wasn’t so long.” And, just like that, our driveway went from special feature to unfortunate drawback. Could I be any more fickle? But, aren’t most of us like that? A little bad weather can turn us against a place. A friend or loved one has a grumpy day and suddenly we are pulling away from the relationship. Some unexpected failures or a few challenges and suddenly our jobs aren’t as satisfying anymore. Suddenly, that which was so satisfying has lost its power and no longer brings a warm glow into our lives.
The Choice to Savor
Fortunately for me, I had two things going for me in that moment. First, the contrast in my feelings that morning compared to the preceding days was so sharp, and it was situated in the context of such an anticipated change, that it made it easy for me to consciously notice the phenomenon. In other words, I was mindful of the change and reflective about what I was experiencing. Second, I was experienced in the SMART Strengths skills. I had a framework within which to ponder this interior experience, and some tools. I realized that I had no reason to be unhappy. In fact, one of the things we have always loved were changes in the seasons. So, I committed to savor that walk. To be mindful of what I was experiencing. To notice the bite of the cold and the feel of the wind and the damp of the rain. To be appreciative of the warmth of my jacket, of the umbrella I carried, and of the warmth of our house as I returned. And, finally, to let the morning ritual of that walk serve as a reminder, each day, to savor all the good things in my life.
Over the next few days, I cemented this habit by reminding myself each morning to pay attention to the walk and to savor the experience. Some days I would be aware of the sky through the trees, perhaps with the moon still shining or, depending on the time, even enjoying the first rays of sunrise. When I noticed that my mind had wandered and I had lost focus on the experience, I would gently re-focus and try to deepen my appreciation. As the days went by, I added the afternoon walk to check the mail to this ritual, giving me two built in opportunities to savor good things in my life. Then I discovered that Teresa and I had turned watching the sunsets into a ritual, one that added value to the time of year when leaves are off the trees and our view of sunsets is better than it will be during leafier seasons.
Rituals are important. Think of them as habits turned to a purpose. We can let the things we do each day become mindless habits, tasks accomplished while we stew about the past or plan the day. Or, we can turn some of them into mindful rituals that help us bring our awareness back to all the good things in life. In fact, one frequently-tested(1) positive intervention in positive psychology is just such a ritual. It goes by various names. In one of its earliest experimental forms, it was called “Three Blessings.” The Army calls it “Hunt the Good Stuff” and Dave calls it “Right-Spotting” in his work with lawyers. In SMART Strengths, we call it the 3XGood exercise (see pp. 155-156). Simply take a few minutes at the end of each day for a week and write down three good things that you experienced or noticed that day. A good thing can be something you did or someone else did or that you noticed in the world. It can be a big accomplishment or a small pleasure. Whatever comes to mind, write it down. Then add a sentence of reflection. Why did it happen? What did you or others do to cause it? What does it mean for your life? How can you have more such experiences in the future? In repeated trials, this exercise has been shown to build well-being, decrease depression, and improve sleep. It is a positive ritual, and by attuning you to notice the good things in your life, it can help you build other positive rituals, such as my daily walks.
Additional ideas about rituals of appreciation in this week’s newsletter. Sign up here for your copy!
(1) Google Scholar for “counting blessings” – the most common name for this exercise in the literature
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