John M. Yeager, Ed.D, MAPP, is Director of the Center for Character Excellence at The Culver Academies in Culver, Indiana. John consults with Dave Shearon, and Sherri Fisher at www.FlourishingSchools.com, an organization that integrates best practices in education with cutting edge Positive Psychology research. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.
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Parents and teachers are the major educators of children, for ill or for good. Whether it is through modeling, the feast of dialogue, or the handling of consequences, young people pick up on different cues, patterns, nuances, illusions, and residues. Parents and teachers can nudge young people toward overall well-being by helping them learn the art of savoring while still keeping sight of achievement goals.
You who are on the road, must have a code that you can live by. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
Let’s take a look at James, an unwitting victim of “success depression,” a concept coined by Steven Berglas to describe people who ‘hit bottom as they reached the top.’ When James achieves desired goals, he is incapable of taking pleasure in his achievements. No savoring for him. He has no clue how to relish the good things in his life. He has become a Mini-Me maximizer, following in his parents footsteps.
James is constantly figuring out the next move to position himself on the fast track for college. He is in a pressure cooker to get top grades, keep a strong social profile, and maintain his participation in many school activities. His parents have hovered over him for the past six years to ensure that he follows all the steps to reach this goal. Although they won’t admit it, his parents are worried that James won’t be successful, and they truly believe that if he isn’t successful, it means that they didn’t do their job as parents. Since they can’t bear not being good parents, they need to push, push, push! His teachers are pushing James too. They believe that their respective subjects are more important than other disciplines, so they want his full attention. James wants to oblige his mentors.
The Red Queen Effect
In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, the Red Queen says to Alice: “It takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” The “Red Queen Effect” is used in biology to explain predator and prey relationships in the animal kingdom. As the prey gets faster to escape predators, the predators get faster too. The Red Queen Effect is alive and well in many of our schools and families today. The perception of extreme competition to get into the right college is at an all time high.
The Hedonic TreadmillJames quickly adapts to his achievements, and his appetite for bigger and better things increases. He experiences only short-lived joy (and relief) from his many achievements — even being on a high school championship team. The more James succeeds, the more is expected of him. Some people say that living in yesterday’s glory prevents looking towards the next challenge. But being on the Hedonic Treadmill means it takes more and more to feel the same positive emotion.
The Savoring Solution – How can we help James help himself?
Learning how to bask, luxuriate, marvel and be thankful at age 16 does not come naturally to James. Here are some cues that can help him access the “savoring being” he carries within himself.
Temporal Dimensions – An expert on savoring, Fred Bryant, suggests that there are three temporal forms of Savoring: (1) Anticipatory (2) Experiential, and (3) Reminiscent. We can savor a positive event before it happens by getting excited in preparation for it, we can savor the positive event as it occurs and we can savor a positive event by remembering it.
Inspiring Savoring – Breathing is the rhythm of life. When breathing is reduced to a mere involuntary physiological reaction, the significance of the breath’s emotional, mental, social and spiritual aspects is negated. The term inspiration, from a mechanical perspective, is the act of drawing in or inhaling breath. From a typical everyday use of the term, inspiration is defined in Webster’s Third International dictionary as: “. . . to have an animating, enlivening or exalting effect upon esp. in a degree or with a result suggestive of the working of some extraordinary power or influence.” James could focus on his breath.
Visualizing with the Senses – Visualization is the process of constructing mental pictures or images, whether of a resonating loud noise, a beautiful azure sky, soft beach sand that finds its ways between the toes, an acrid smell, or a tasty doughnut. James could use his ability to visualize to anticipate and remember good experiences.
Basking -James enjoys receiving praise and congratulations. However, he is on to the next thing within moments. Slowing down and taking just an additional 5-10 minutes to bask in praise may help to provide some long-term memory. It could also start a mini-basking habit that might snowball down the road.Marveling – If James can put his mind in slow motion for a moment, he may be able to cue into the wonder of the things he is experiencing. He might see how cool is what happened on the soccer field and how exciting are the aha! moments in Physics.
Thanksgiving – James, like many other young people, tends to be self-absorbed. It is a natural part of the brain-development process of teens. We have found when children and adolescents frequently share gratitude with others, they are more engaged in school and relationships. Robert Emmons, the leading researcher in the science of gratitude, says that gratitude is “good medicine, and its side effects are few. . .Gratitude, we have found, maximizes the enjoyment of the good – our enjoyment of others, of God, of our lives. Happiness is facilitated when we enjoy what we have been given, when we ‘want what we have.’”
Luxuriating by Honing the Senses – By paying more attention to his senses and the the sounds, sights, feelings, tastes, and smells around him, James may be able to access a state of savoring that races his motor or soothes his soul.
James deliberately practices to improve in the classroom and on the athletic field. By diverting some of his strengths to accessing the “savoring being within himself,” he may come to realize that learning how to savor gets him what he wants more of in his life. His parents and teachers could also learn a lesson or two!
Berglas, S. (1986). The Success Syndrome: Hitting bottom when you reach the top. New York: Plenum Press.
Bryant, F.B. (1989) A four-factor model of perceived control: Avoiding, coping, obtaining, and Savoring. Journal of Personality, 57(4), 773-797
Bryant, F. & Veroff, J. (2007) Savoring: A new model of positive experience.. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Emmons, R. (2007) Thanks!: How the new science of gratitude can make you happier. Boston: Houghton Mifflan Company.
Ufberg, Mimi (2007). On Savoring – This would be a good article for James to read.