A man visits his favorite restaurant. The waiters are overjoyed to see him – he is one of their best customers, after all – and after his meal, they bring him their best dessert on the house: a cherry pie. Every bite is perfection. When the man leaves the restaurant, he is in a terrific mood and practically skips to his car.
But how long will that good mood last? Will it last for hours? Days? Or will it disappear mere minutes after he gets into the car?
A recently published study in the Journal of Neuroscience examined the biology behind savoring a good thing. Some people are able to hold onto the positive emotions associated with a good experience– for instance, a delicious meal – whereas other people lose those positive feelings almost immediately. Determining what separates a person who savors good things from a person who doesn’t may unlock some of the biological mysteries associated with depression.
The study was conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. During the study, roughly 100 adult participants played a short guessing game on their smartphones. In this game, participants were instructed to guess whether or not the computer would display a number lower or higher than another number, for instance: “Please guess whether the next number will be higher or lower than 5.”
Participants would win money if they guessed correctly and nothing if they guessed incorrectly. Winning was intended to give the participants a burst of positive emotions, whereas losing was intended to give them a burst of negative emotions. After each round, the participants were asked to rate their emotional state. Every 15 minutes, the phone would prompt them to rate their emotions again to see whether their positive (or negative) mood had endured.
The same participants then performed the guessing game while scientists collected images of their brains using functional MRI. Individuals who demonstrated sustained activation in their brain’s reward center, the ventral striatum, reported more enduring positive feelings after winning. Activity in another brain region, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, predicted the magnitude of positive feelings a person felt immediately post-reward.
What does this mean for treating depression? The authors theorize that – because an inability to savor good things is associated with depression – understanding the neural patterns associated with long-lasting good moods might open the door to future mental health interventions.
Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D., senior author of the study, suspects that the neural pattern associated with savoring can be cultivated through meditation and practicing compassion. He also suspects that these neural networks can be shifted through smartphone-guided cognitive training.
“Most patients spend only one hour per week in psychotherapy. That’s less than 1 percent of their waking time, so the fact that anything changes at all is pretty remarkable,” Davidson said. “The idea is if we can use cellphone technology to provide similar prompts to help people sustain positive emotion throughout the week, we may be able to create faster changes in brain networks that give rise to improved mood.”
How can people increase their ability to savor?
Many studies have investigated how to better experience and hold onto good feelings.
One study found that regularly practicing meditation can lead to long-lasting structural changes in areas of the brain associated with sensory, cognitive and emotional processing, perhaps increasing a person’s ability to feel pleasure. Another study found that moderation increases savoring: Participants who abstained from chocolate for one full week reported a more pleasurable experience the next time they had chocolate when compared to individuals who gorged themselves on chocolate or received no explicit instructions. Another study found that treating each experience as though it’s the last can amplify its associated pleasure.
Research on how to be happy – and how to savor that happiness – is unlikely to end any time soon. Achieving happiness is the modern day equivalent of the fountain of youth. Unlike the fountain of youth, however, the blueprint associated with happiness is located in the brain. Future research may help uncover that blueprint and, ultimately, treat individuals with depression.
Sovereign Health Group follows cutting-edge research in the fields of neuroscience and mental health to guarantee patients receive the most effective treatment possible. We provide patients with scientifically based cognitive training to improve brain wellness, individual therapy, group therapy, yoga, equine therapy, stress management and group outings. For more questions, please call 888-530-4614.
Written by Courtney Lopresti, M.S. neuroscience, Sovereign Health Group writer