THE SHORTEST PATH TO JOY
Joy: a) a source or cause of delight b) a state of felicity or happiness c) the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune, or by the prospect of possessing what one desires (or the expression or exhibition of such emotion)
Is joy in danger of becoming extinct? In 2018, an age where we don’t even blink at the sight of twenty-four-hour news cycles assaulting us with the four D’s—danger, disaster, death, and division—is joy slowly being eradicated from our daily emotional experience? Has your personal joy ever gone missing?
At times in my life I’ve found joy rather easy to locate each day, but at other times—for obvious reasons and for no discernible reasons at all—those “sources and causes of delight” have seemed conspicuously absent from both my orbit and the galaxy at large.
At times I’ve even been angered by the concept of joy. I’ve been put off by the mere mention of it. It seemed phony and overexposed. It seemed overly simple. People who said they were “joyful” were either disingenuous or stupid, a saccharine flock of schmucks who wore plastic smiles and refused to analyze their relationships, their religion, their personal goals, and the genuinely complex and often contradictory nature of pretty much everything we experience on a daily basis.
Joy didn’t really exist, I suspected. At least not for adults. At least not for thinking adults. At least not for me.
When I had the above thoughts —the thoughts that a) joy didn’t exist for me, or b) that if it appeared to exist for me, then I was simply fooling myself—I realized that I had to make some changes in my life and reexamine my ideas about happiness. I had to rearrange a few of my definitions and orientations. For example, happiness didn’t have to be defined in very large ways. It didn’t have to be a five-thousand-dollar windfall, an exotic vacation, a promotion, or a new car: it could be a good book, a good meal, an interesting (or superbly horrific) movie enjoyed with my wife, an outdoor walk or run, or any other number of extremely accessible and relatively cheap experiences.
And happiness didn’t have to rely on achievements either. It didn’t have to be found exclusively at the tail end of pursuing goals (i.e., in results). It could be found on the walk toward the goals. It could be found in taking small daily steps that made me feel good about myself. For example, I didn’t need to make a million dollars off writing to feel good about doing it. I could simply feel good about logging a solid number of writing hours per week. If I devoted a respectable chunk of my time to something I felt was important to both myself and the world at large, then I could be happy about that.
At one particularly low point in my life—when I was simultaneously struggling with health, career, financial, and emotional issues—I realized that finding joy in the small things is imperative for surviving life’s storms. And I now realize that reorienting one’s definitions of joy toward things that are readily accessible and personally meaningful must be a daily and ongoing exercise, even in the “smooth” times.
I love this definition of joy: “The emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune, or by the prospect of possessing what one desires.”
So, you’re telling me that it’s okay to simply feel good about feeling good (my “well-being”)? I can do that. When I’m happy, it’s okay to just feel happy about it. I don’t have to analyze it. I don’t have to wonder if other people approve of it.
And you’re telling me that it’s okay to simply feel good about the prospect of possessing what one desires? That sounds a little bit like daydreaming, which I’ve always been pretty good at, and that sounds an awful lot like taking small steps toward big goals. When we take those baby steps, we imagine they might turn into something greater. And even if they never do, according to this definition of joy, the great emotional reward is already there simply because we allowed ourselves to engage in the act of imagining.
Just allow yourself to daydream for a bit today. What do you want out of life? A new career? Better health? A more meaningful spiritual life? Relationships without drama and with unconditional love and acceptance? Imagine these things happening. Take small steps toward them, and feel good about those small steps.
Allow yourself to dream of a better life. That is how joy can be found right now.
Joyless people are often creatures of their own creation or byproducts of unfortunate experiences. They are in pain, they are confused, they are overly moralistic or jaded, they are overly ambitious or materialistic, and they are overly affected by the opinions and definitions that others spout into the air around their tired heads each day. As previously stated, I’ve been a joyless creature at times, and it was for each of those reasons to varying extents. And it was also because I was facing some truly difficult circumstance and challenges in my life. Life can be arduous. But guess what? We can be depressed or worried or sick at times because of circumstances, but that doesn’t mean we have to be joyless. Joyless is more of a deliberate transformation to an overarching state—like cynicism or self-loathing—and that sort of transformation takes a willing participant to happen. Don’t be that willing participant. Don’t let joyless happen. Try to find your little pieces of joy each day, even in the midst of trying circumstances.
I will leave you with a list of 15 Tips for Joyful Living. Just bear with me if that sounds sappy, callow, or inauthentic. Some of these will resonate with you while others might not, but none of them are pie-in-a-nonexistent sky useless or duplicitous. I’m not pretending that I’m smiling like a blissful Buddha all day every day because of them. These tips aren’t magic bullets, but each of them has helped me to find joy at times when I otherwise might not have, so I hope that at least one or two of them might be useful in your quest for better living.
1. Take a small step toward a big dream. Want to publish a novel? Start writing the first page this week. Want to lose fifty pounds? Make a plan to lose one in the next ten days. Want to make a million dollars? Find a creative way to make an extra fifty. Want to find really big joy? Start by finding a tiny piece of happiness today, and then tomorrow, and then the next day. Make that a habit that builds upon itself.
2. Help others in some way, be it great or small. Bake for someone, write a letter to someone, or invite someone for a drink. Offer advice to someone who is going through a challenge that you have already traversed. Just listen to someone. Don’t judge someone. Tell someone that their ideas and goals sound awesome. It isn’t always easy to live for others in such a way when we are wrapped up in our own problems, but that is kind of the point here. Unwrap yourself from yourself for a minute; look outside of yourself. It’s easier to see joy that way.
3. Daydream. About anything, about everything. If you are broke, dream about a windfall. If you are sick, dream about being healthy. If you are alone, dream about finding friendship and love. If you are feeling trapped, dream about liberation. Dream about career success, and dream about making a mark on the world. Dream about whatever sort of joy you want. Just don’t worry that dreaming somehow isn’t for you, because it can be done at any age and from any location. And it’s free.
4. Cook for yourself and your loved ones. There really is something spiritual about this. There is something soulful and joyful about planning a meal and buying the ingredients and trying to show affection to yourself and others in a culinary manner. Getting lost in the rhythms of cooking (the chopping, measuring, mixing, boiling, stirring, flipping,) can be a bit like getting lost in the rhythms of a good run. You can give yourself over to the consuming Zen of the activity, which acts as a sort of meditation. Living out of Kraft boxes and restaurants is okay in moderation, but too much of it can hurt our stomachs and make us feel disconnected from our minds and bodies. Good food positively affects how you feel and think, and so can the act of preparing it. And if you’re out of practice when it comes to cooking, just start with something simple.
5. Turn off the news. Turn off the news. Turn off the news.
6. Step away from joyless environments and people (even if it is only emotionally). Is your workplace wearing you down with its negativity? Is a friend or relative consistently dragging you to a weatherworn state of gloom and doom? Is someone you know—someone you love, even—always playing the contrarian to your every thought, sentence, and dream. Then step away. Find more positive people and places. Send a message to the world that you won’t have your happiness compromised in such a way.
7. Limit your social media use. We can’t really escape Facebook and Twitter and the like in this day and age, but we can limit our exposure to these things instead of allowing them to create a new reality for us. If we don’t do this, we can get lost in a constant quest to secure meaningless gestures of “approval” (things such as likes and retweets and blah, blah, blah), and we can get lost in a constant game of comparing ourselves to others, too. We can begin to feel as if we are giving away our privacy and the moments that used to be special precisely because they were private. Don’t lose too much of your identity or your mind or your time to social media. Even Tim Cook (the CEO of Apple) recently said that he won’t let his nephew use Facebook, and even Chamath Palihapitiya, who previously served as Facebook's vice president for user growth, recently urged people to take a "hard break" from social media.
8. Stop trying to impress the people who don’t care about you. I don’t know why we, as a species, are wired to care doubly about the people who don’t give a shit about us. But we are. I am, and I bet you are, too. At least some of the time. But how about this? What if we tried to impress ourselves and our God each day instead? What if we tried to impress the loved ones who walk with us every day instead of the acquaintances and strangers and hazy ghosts from our past who don’t truly care about us? I bet that leads to increased joy—and more meaningful personal development—more often than not.
9. If your spiritual life (i.e., your church and pastors and devotional readings etc.,) relies too heavily on negative language or self-loathing, step away and find a more joyful way to connect with God. I recently read a disturbing phrase in a devotional book that went something like this: “When we are faced with God, we see our lives as a continual offense against Him.” This author was Christian, and very traditional, and he couldn’t seem to go several sentences without referring to himself and his readers as sinners and liars and people who ought to find “blessing in mourning.” What sort of thinking is this, this lamenting ourselves in such a way? Why the compulsion to berate and break ourselves on a daily basis lest our spiritual joy come too easily? It is my understanding that Jesus offers a ridiculously easy path to spiritual joy, actually, one that doesn’t involve ritual self-flagellation or daily trips to the guilt chamber. Read His words for yourself and make some of your own conclusions. Chances are you will find increased love, tolerance, and hope that way. You will find increased joy.
10. Practice indulgent self-care. Even if you are busy with career demands or responsible for the well-being of a spouse or children or parents, remember to take care of yourself and indulge yourself. Don’t see yourself as a martyr or your life as a throwaway. Some people mistakenly believe that self-care is an overly feminine concept, but we all need it—men included—believe me (I discuss a bit about my own self-care practices in this recent podcast conversation I had with the Go & Grow Show). So whether you are male or female, take time out for books, baths, Netflix indulgences, and naps. Take time out for hobbies. Do what relaxes and recharges you. Do these things to avoid burnout and cynicism.
11. Stop comparing yourself to others and feel rich. (also see #7 regarding the dangers of social media use). The truth is, I’ve never been happier than when I’ve forgotten to evaluate how my life compares with the lives of the world around me. I’ve found that there is no quicker path to perpetual misery than playing the comparison game, and there is no quicker path to daily bliss than suspecting that your life is THE LIFE. Right now, instead of wishing for a different life (i.e., someone else’s life), think about how: Your house is just perfect for you right now, your spouse is just the right one to appreciate your heart and soul, your dog and your cat are smarter than all of the others out there, and your plans for a better life are right on track. No need to compare yourself to others today, because you already have it all. You are rich today.
12. Work up a sweat most days. I once heard Matthew McConaughey promote this idea in an Inside the Actor’s Studio interview. Similarly, an enthusiastic runner once said, “Running can save a bad day.” How true is that about a good workout in general? Even twenty to thirty minutes of walking, running, weight-lifting, yoga, boxing, etc., etc. can turn a state of depression, anxiety, or anger into a new lease on emotional and mental well-being. And it will help you to look younger and fit into those outfits you’ve been wanting to buy, too.
13. The next time you’re beating yourself up about some failure (real or perceived), picture yourself as a child. Picture your bright, clear little eyes and your unsullied heart so full of trust and hope. Picture your big plans for life and all of your good intentions. Listen carefully: Hear your laughter that came so easily. Look between the lines of today and see into the past: See the whimsical games you played and the hopes that you carried around. You are still that person. Love that person. Let that person back into your life today and every day.
14. Find your passions and practice getting better at them. What is your passion? Making music? Running? Finding greater spiritual enlightenment? Woodworking or traveling? Being an admirable parent or spouse or friend? One of my passions is writing, so I work to strengthen my connection to it and sharpen my prowess at it. I set aside time to practice it. And as a result—much like with the “working up a sweat” idea in #12—a bad day can be saved. I can be pulled out of life’s gray clouds by writing. Let your passions pull you out of the muck when necessary.
15. Remember that life is more than just the sum of your heartaches. Remember that your challenges can make you stronger. Remember to find daily joy even in the midst of stress and sadness. In the last year, I’ve experienced the following: a cancer scare with my wife, a complicated surgery for my wife and her near-fatal morphine overdose in the hospital, water damage in my house due to a leaking water heater, shady contractors that caused further damage during the “fixing” of the previous scenario, frozen water pipes on New Year’s Eve, and, just last week, a fraudulent charge from the Ukraine that drained half of my checking account (I’m still trying to resolve that one). Bottom line: Joy isn’t always effortless. It isn’t always automatic. Some days it takes a little searching to find the joy, but it is always there if we look for it. It isn’t always gigantic, but it is there.
Remember, the path to joy doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, it often seems to be the shortest and least cluttered of the myriad paths that weave through our daily lives. So find your shortest path to joy today and jump onto it without apology.
MICHAEL PRIEBE is the author of THE LOVELY GRIND: SPIRITUAL INSPIRATION FOR WORKDAYS (90 Devotions for Stress Relief & Personal Growth). Get the book here, and sign-up for The Lovely Grind's mailing list here to receive all of Michael's blog posts and newsletters.