The Key to Overall Well-Being? Savoring

The ability to savor could be a strong predictor of well-being, according to new brain-imaging research. 

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Enjoying a beautiful sunset can feel pretty good, but when it comes to mental health, it’s also important to consider how long those positive feelings last. In a new study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Investigating Healthy Minds (CIHM), recently published in The Journal of Neuroscience, researchers looked at how a person’s penchant for savoring positive moments can lead to overall well-being in the long run.

In the CIHM blog, writer Marianne Spoon notes that the study is the first of its kind to blend laboratory and real-world settings into one experiment on savoring and how we’re affected by our emotions.

Over the course of the study, 100 participants played guessing games while scientists collected functional MRI scans of their brains.

From Spoon’s CIHM blog:

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, [Aaron] 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.

Through brain imaging, researchers could observe reward learning and how much positive emotoin increased following reward:

Individuals with more persistent activation in the part of their brain associated with reward and reward learning—called the ventral striatum—reported positive emotion that was sustained for longer periods of time after the game. The magnitude of activation in another area of the brain responsible for executive functioning, the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, predicted how much a person’s positive emotion increased immediately following a reward.

To learn more about the study’s design, read “Keeping up that positive feeling: the science of savoring emotions.”