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Why Am I Doing This?
When people talk about life after the pandemic, they often say they’ll never take the small things in life for granted again — going into the office, meeting friends for dinner or just getting a haircut.
So how do you keep from sliding back into complacency? A few studies offer simple ways to keep appreciating the world around you.
When we make an effort to notice our surroundings or show appreciation for the people, places or things that make us happy, it’s called “savoring.” Scientists know that savoring exercises can lead to meaningful gains in overall happiness and well-being.
One small study found that mindful photography can be a fun and easy way to savor everyday experiences and cultivate gratitude. For the research, college students were instructed to take photos of things that brought them joy or felt meaningful to them. They were also told not to rush and to put some thought into the project. During the study, the students used their phone cameras to take pictures of campus buildings, blooming flowers, friends hanging out in the quad or objects in their dorm rooms.
Overall, the students who took mindful photographs felt happier and more appreciative of college life compared to a control group that took photos of uninspiring things like bike racks. And the researchers found that mindful photography worked just as well at improving wellbeing as a traditional gratitude journal practice.
“We have cameras with us all the time, and we often take pictures habitually without a whole lot of intention,” said Jaime Kurtz, professor of psychology at James Madison University who conducted the research. “Mindful photography is about slowing down. It’s not just snapping mindless photos. It’s keeping an eye out for something that is beautiful or meaningful to you.”
The study can be particularly useful for people who don’t like writing in a gratitude journal but who enjoy taking photos. Studies show that people who practice gratitude get better sleep and have higher levels of happiness. fewer health problems and less depression.
Dr. Kurtz noted that people should be careful about taking too many gratitude photos in one setting. This can take you “out of the moment because you’re taking so many pictures, you’re not looking around anymore,” she said.
Similar research has focused on cultivating feelings of awe by mindfully noticing a bigger world around you, like a breathtaking sunset or a picturesque landscape. While it can be difficult to define “awe,” the emotion is generally described as feeling you are in the presence of something larger and more consequential than yourself. It’s the feeling you get when you see the Grand Canyon or trees covered in fresh cherry blossoms. Studies show that when people regularly cultivate a sense of awe, they have lower levels of inflammation and stress, healthier heart rates, higher levels of social well-being and stronger feelings of connection with others.
While early research into awe focused on exceptional experiences, like going white-water rafting, more recent studies have shown that people can cultivate awe on a daily walk in their local surroundings. In a recent study, 52 volunteers were asked to take 15-minute walks. Half of them weren’t given any guidance. But the other group was told to cultivate awe by walking in places they’d never seen before and taking a fresh look at surroundings they might have taken for granted in the past.
Overall, the awe walkers felt happier, less upset and more socially connected than those in the control group.
“Another way to experience awe is to pay attention to things going on in our own lives we might have missed otherwise,” said Craig L. Anderson, a postdoctoral scholar in marketing at Washington University in St. Louis who has conducted “awe” research. He noted that you can find awe in “the small beauty in our everyday experiences we might be blind to when we rush around.”
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