Savoring a beautiful sunset and the positive emotions associated with it can contribute to improved well-being, according to research. But why and how are some people better than others in keeping the feeling alive?
“It’s important to consider not just how much emotion you experience, but also how long these emotions persist,” says Aaron Heller, former graduate student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison Center for Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center and current assistant professor of psychology at the University of Miami. “We’re looking at how one person can savor a great deal that beautiful sunset or a memorable meal, but how another person who might be susceptible to depression can’t savor that sunset and those positive emotions subside quickly.”
Heller and colleagues’ findings, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, suggest that the duration of activity in specific circuits of the brain, even over relatively short periods of time such as seconds, can predict the persistence of a person’s positive emotion minutes and hours later. The results and the study’s unique design contribute to a growing understanding of how mental disorders such as depression might be manifested in the brain. Depression affects more than 350 million people globally, according to the World Health Organization.
Until now, researchers have examined savoring and the impact of emotions on individuals either in the laboratory or in a real-world setting, but not in both with the same people and prompts. Heller says the study is one of the first of its kind to take the same experiment from the lab into the field while linking emotion responses in both settings to neural activity in the brain.
Over the course of the study, roughly 100 adult participants played a short guessing game and answered questions about their emotions when prompted by a smartphone over a 10-day period. The guessing game provided participants with the following instructions: “The computer chose the number 5. Please guess whether the next number will be higher or lower than 5.”