How to Maximize Your Enjoyment
In our society, most individuals spend more time at work than with their families. Not to mention the various tasks, chores, and endeavors that we may not find very pleasing that further take away from time to just sit back and relax. However, for many people, relaxation is hard to come by and for others, even when engaged in something that should be enjoyable they still may not find much satisfaction. While this may be a sign of an underlying depressive or anxiety disorder, there may be a more simplistic reason your enjoyment is not as high as you think it should be. How you are, or are not, directing your attention when engaged in an enjoyable activity.
A useful strategy that can increase enjoyment in almost any moment is mindfulness. In today's society, mindfulness has certainly become a buzzword and you're likely to hear people use it often. In fact, you'll even find magazines devoted to mindfulness at the checkout stand in your local grocery store. The way in which I'm suggesting you use mindfulness to increase enjoyment is specific and noted through psychological research to have many benefits.
The definition that I prefer when speaking about mindfulness comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn, a world renowned authority on using mindfulness training to reduce clinical symptoms. His definition focuses on three key components that direct attention to the present moment. According to Kabat-Zinn mindfulness is "paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally."
While simplistic in description, mindfulness can be quite difficult to practice. Let's talk about the three components of mindfulness.
Paying Attention on Purpose
A person can be mindful at any time without any sort of instruction or training. Some people tend to be naturally more mindful than others and can focus on one task without distractions from their mind. However, when practicing mindfulness, its helpful to be intentional and set out to pay attention to one particular thing. You can chose literally anything to be mindful of - a thought, an emotion, the food you're eating, or even the child screaming in the grocery store. What you are being mindful of can be important, but how you're are being mindful is key. When practicing mindfulness you should not be a passive observer waiting for information to flood your senses. Instead, adopt a curious stance and explore your chosen object/situation/thought with the intention to purposefully gain information and awareness from what your are exploring.
For example, you may take a walk and wait for your senses to be stimulated by sight, sound, or smell and this can be enjoyable. However, when mindful you set the intention to take a walk and actively observe your surroundings. Perhaps you start your walk with the intention of being mindful of each flower you see as you pass. Rather than just walking by a flower and thinking "I see a blue flower, I see a yellow flower," challenge yourself to really notice each flower down to the shape, size, and quantity of petals, touch and smell the flower and describe these sensations to yourself. Be purposeful in your observations.
This type of attention aids in increasing focus on your intended subject (and decreases distractions/worries about other things) and people tend to find that this is an enjoyable experience that increases pleasure in an activity. If you notice each intricate detail of an enjoyable activity, you are more likely to experience emotions that match, thereby increase pleasant emotions.
In the Present Moment
If you decide to take a vacation and go to the Bahamas, you expect to feel good, relaxed, euphoric even. Maybe you have waited all year and saved all your vacation days and extra income for this vacation. But, if you're like many people, the expectation of happiness when on vacation tends to exceed actual happiness when vacationing. Why? This is because so many people forget to stay present when on vacation. The mind thinks about returning back to work, the long flight, how much money was spent and you have little space left to sit back and enjoy your long wished for break.
Another key factor with mindfulness is paying attention to what is happening in your environment now. As humans we are so often caught up with things from the past or planning for the future, we forget to stay in contact with the present moment. Keeping your mind in the present and focused on an enjoyable activity allows you to enjoy that activity more fully. If rather than thinking about when you return to work from your Caribbean vacation you focus on the sound of the waves, the warm sand, and the sense of freedom from everyday tasks, you are bound to feel greater enjoyment.
Our minds are fond of multitasking, so you will find that even when trying to be mindful, other thoughts will come into your mind. That's okay, it is simply your mind doing the job it is meant to do. When this happens, as soon as you notice your thoughts are no longer on your present activity, gently redirect your attention back the present moment and use the strategies described above to stay in contact with the present moment.
Remaining non-judgmental when mindful often proves difficult for people as judgments are required on a daily basis to keep us safe (e.g., is a street safe to cross? Has a gallon of milk gone bad?). Reserving judgement during mindfulness may aid in keeping you from getting distracted by the judgement and therefore no longer practicing mindfulness.
Going back to the example of mindfully walking and looking at flowers. If rather than factually describing the flowers - the flower is blue, it has five petals, a green steam, a yellow center- you instead state that you think the flower is ugly, your mind may take that evaluation and run with it. You may then begin to question the purpose of looking at flowers or taking a walk at all and get little or no enjoyment out of the activity. Even positive judgements can be distracting. Try to keep descriptions factual and descriptive.
The next time you set out to do something you enjoy, see if you can practice mindfulness during part of the activity. Pay attention to the moment as it unfolds around you, notice how you feel and what you think as you stay in contact with the present rather than letting your mind choose what to focus on for you. You may very well see that your enjoyment in a situation is higher when both you and your mind are present.