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Can A Happy Memory Help You Fall Asleep?

Hayley Dawes
24 January 2023

Trouble sleeping lately? Try a technique called savoring or imaging a positive experience in great detail. Savoring is a form of positive repetitive thought characterised by attendance to positive affective experiences.

We know what we’re supposed to do before bed to ensure a good night’s sleep: Set a fixed bedtime. Turn off our screens. Create a relaxing routine before bed.

Now, sleep researchers say that what we think about as we try to go to sleep is just as important. They recommend that as we prepare to drift off, we practice something called savoring, which is imagining a positive experience we’ve had in great detail.

Many of us ruminate as we’re trying to drift off. This is where savouring can help. “It gives your brain something else to focus on – something emotionally compelling and pleasurable,” says Dana McMakin, a professor of psychology at Florida International University, who studies savouring.

What is savoring? 

In psychology, savoring the moment refers to intentionally focusing your attention on the positive aspects of an experience. When you do this, you notice the sensations, perceptions, emotions, actions, and thoughts that are linked to a particular moment, event, or experience. Learning to savor the moment in life is a convenient, free, and effective way to increase your happiness and quality of life. It can also be a helpful way to reduce stress. Enjoying what you have can help you to appreciate what you’ve got rather than lamenting what you don’t have.

Savoring differs from other strategies you may use before going to sleep. When you savour, you try to re-create the positive emotional state of the experience. It’s not the same as practicing gratitude, which involves thinking about something rather than trying to feel it. And it’s different from meditating or trying to be mindful, in which the goal is to quiet your mind. Savoring aims to fill it up with positive emotion.

When you savor a happy memory, your brain reacts as if you’re reliving that enjoyable experience all over again, says Sara C. Mednick, a neuroscientist and professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine. The activity in your sympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of your stress response, reduces. And the activity in your parasympathetic nervous system, which restores the body to a calm state, increases. 

Savoring is well-studied as a strategy to improve our general well-being. A considerable body of research shows that it can boost mood and help reduce depression and anxiety. Now, psychologists believe it can help us fall asleep and have better sleep quality and are starting to study its effectiveness. Recent research has shown that higher levels of savoring are significantly associated with lower levels of sleep-related impairment. High levels of rumination are associated with higher levels of sleep disturbance and sleep-related impairment.

Ready to try savouring as a sleep aid? Here’s how to get started: 

Pick your happy memory beforehand

It could be something big – a favourite holiday or the day your child was born – or something small, such as playing with your dog. It could also be something you’re doing at the moment (snuggling in your cosy flannel sheets) or looking forward to doing in the future. 

When you’re in bed trying to sleep, re-create it in your mind. Imagine it with all five of your sense, adding as many details as you can. Think of those same sensations in your body now, this will make blood flow to those parts and away from the worrying part of your brain, which will help you relax, Dr. Mednick says.

Get your ruminating out of the way early

Schedule a worry session – at least several hours before bedtime. Set a timer at the beginning of your session for 15 minutes, then let your mind go hog-wild fretting. Write down all the worries that come to you. When the time is up, literally and figuratively close the book. “This gives your brain an opportunity to worry and download the negatively early, to break the habit of ruminating at bedtime,” says Wendy Troxel, a clinical psychologist, sleep scientist.

Practice during the day

Savoring on command may not come easily at first. Practicing savouring during the day will train your brain to focus on positivity. It will strengthen the memory, which will help your brain recall it more easily next time, and calm your stress response down, says Dr. Mednick. She recommends 10 minute stretches several times a week. 

Stick with it

Like any habit, it will take time to stick, says Zlatan Krizan, a professor of psychology and sleep scientist as Iowa State University. Don’t give up if it’s hard at first.

Coping and savoring

Savoring is the capacity to notice, appreciate and intensify the positive aspects of our lives. Knowing how to cope with negative events and savor positive ones are two sides of the coin life experiences. Coping skills help diminish the effects of painful moments, while savoring helps amplify the beauty of joyful ones. Both are essential to living a happy life.

While coping strategies have been studied for decades, positive psychologists and scientist who study happiness are now exploring techniques that allow us to linger and luxuriate in positive experiences. When we savor good times, we allow ourselves to sink into the sweet feeling of positive emotions like joy, love, gratitude, and serenity. Positive emotions have been shown to, among other things, increase creativity, improve our sleep, and even strengthen our immune systems.

Savoring the good times multiplies the joy in our lives in two ways: by diminishing the space in our minds devoted to negative thoughts and by amplifying the effects of positive thoughts and feelings. 

With practice, we can become better at savoring, immersing ourselves ever more deeply in the sunshine of positive experiences. We can create what might be called a savoring mindset – the key is to not miss the opportunities to savor when they arise.