Practicing Joy

This section is about focusing on joy, the immediate sensation of positive feelings.  Joy requires special attention because there is so much going on in today’s world that interferes with our ability to be attentive to how we feel right now—and if you can’t do that, you miss a lot of happiness.  I like to cite a study that found visible growth in certain areas of the brain of college students who practiced juggling every day for three months—and then found that the growth disappeared after three months of no practice.  I take this as a paradigm for learning any new behavior, like attending to joy.  The good news is that it’s possible to literally change our brains, so that becoming more aware of joy becomes automatic.  The bad news is that it takes longer than we want it to—three months of concentrated, focused practice.

The simplest, but most important, message about happiness is this:  WAKE UP!  There is spectacular beauty all around you.  Miracles are happening right under your nose.  Compared to our ancestors and most of the people in the world today, we live a very comfortable, pleasant existence with great freedom and many opportunities.  Don’t let it all slip by unnoticed.

This is more difficult than it should be because worldwide we seem to be losing our ability to feel anything at all.  There are so many messages that tell us to fear our own emotions—stay cool, don’t lose control.  And of course we try not to feel disturbing emotions—anger, fear, grief.  But we can’t shut down negative feelings without shutting down positive feelings too.

Enjoying ourselves is a skill that can be learned. Many of us are uncomfortable with happiness. When occasionally we stumble on it, it scares us. We have to approach it with care.  Savoring is a skill that the positive psychologists have developed.  A simple going-to-sleep exercise can make a big difference in your overall mood.  Most things that bring us joy are simple, having to do with the body: taste, touch, play, developing skills.  A sense of wonder.  It’s so-ironic-you-can’t-stand-it that in today’s world we may have to deliberately schedule time for these experiences.

One way to get used to enjoying ourselves is to work on feeling proud. This is an uncomfortable feeling, but one we can get used to with practice. Take a few minutes each day and jot down in a notebook a list of three things you’ve done that you feel good about. These may be things you thought you couldn’t do, or difficult tasks you had to force yourself to do, or just spontaneous acts of generosity or intimacy. After a week, look through the notebook at all the things you can feel good about. If you start to feel a little proud of yourself, you will probably be somewhat uncomfortable with that feeling. Never mind all the theorizing about why it’s hard for you to feel proud; just ride out the discomfort for a few minutes. You’ll see that the discomfort soon recedes a little. With practice, before long you may start feeling pretty good about yourself.

Another way is to pay attention to small pleasures. Most people are not good at being “in the moment” — instead of paying attention to what’s actually going on around us, we’re worried about what’s going to happen next, or feeling bad about what happened before. We can change this habit too. Cultivate a better awareness of how your mind takes you away from the present; when you notice it, bring yourself back. Pay more attention to your senses than your thoughts. Attend to the taste of your food, the sounds in the evening with the TV off, the colors in the rooms you live in. Do what you can to make things more pleasant for yourself.

Find opportunities for flow, the experiences that take us out of our temporal consciousness. Practice activities that are a mild challenge, that occupy our minds and bodies, that require a high degree of concentration, that have clear rules and prompt feedback. Practice concentration, making a deliberate effort to focus your attention on the task at hand. Forget yourself, lose the observing eye that is always evaluating you critically. Even at work, even if you hate your job, you will like yourself better if you find ways to make it challenging and stimulating. If this means you work harder and the boss will be pleased with you, that’s just a risk you’ve got to take.

Learn to relax. Take a course in yoga, or t’ai chi. Take care of your body, and learn to listen to it. Eat healthy but delicious meals. When we neglect or abuse our bodies, we’re only being passive aggressive with ourselves. We’re treating ourselves as if we’re unworthy of love. Unless we treat ourselves with care and respect, we can’t hope for joy.