Make it a Joy (The Simple Step We Sometimes Forget)

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Sometimes the most radical realisations of life occur at the most mundane of moments. I experienced this just last week.

Imagine the scene:

I am sitting at my desk, engaged in the work I have chosen for my life, wearing the clothes I have chosen to wear, after eating the breakfast I chose to eat (you get the idea).

And suddenly I notice a profoundly uncomfortable truth: I am not enjoying any of it.

Has this ever happened to you?

Have you ever looked around and felt disappointed, or checked in with your body to find only stress and tension and a heavy weight in your limbs as you drag them around completing autopilot tasks?

You’re not alone.

What felt radical about this moment is what subsequently popped into my head: make it a joy.

This is a philosophy I used to live by in my early twenties but that—somewhere in the encroaching obligations of adulthood—appears to have been lost. I picked up from somewhere (where?) that work should be hard and being mature means being serious and that the most vital success-measure of anyone’s day is productivity.

Yet… are these things actually true? I’m not sure.

I am unfathomably privileged to live where I do, at the time that I do, with the means that I have available to me—and so if I cannot glance around and feel a sense of giddy pleasure at what I have going on then something must be amiss.

Psychologists call our casual acclimatisation to the wondrous miracle that life (even humdrum daily life) on Earth represents: hedonic adaptation.

How do we counter this?

My humble advice would be: don’t get so accustomed to the pleasure of your life that you forget to enjoy it. Make it a joy, whatever that means to you. Call it mindfulness, call it savouring, call it spiritual practice, call it awareness… it all boils down to that simple phrase: make it a joy.

And what is the ultimate ‘it’ that we have in our possession to enjoy? Us. Ourselves. The small human package we have arrived in having its mortal experience of the world.

Make it a joy to be you.

Enjoy being you. Huh, now there’s a concept… What if, daily, we found the pleasure and the pride and the passion in our personhood? What if we settled into the cosy armchair of us-ness (welcoming ourselves home from a hard day’s work of self-flagellation)?

We live in an era where Showing Off On the Internet is an Olympic sport, and where we float adrift in the great gulf of social media ricocheting off of the Instagram stories of Other People’s Fabulous Lives until we are dizzy. No wonder we switch out of the apps, put down our phone, look around at our lives and find them… depressingly monochrome in comparison.

Why not, instead, treat taking pleasure in your own existence as a practice; a hobby; a favourite pastime?

Meet the monochrome doldrums head-on by putting down your phone and replacing it with your own proverbial paintbrush—remembering that you are the artist of your own life experience.

Why not make it a joy?

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The Story of Happiness

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Last week I wrote about how the self – our identity – is considered by many psychologists to be a kind of narrative; that the self is a story.

I briefly mentioned that, if our own identity can be seen as a story, then certainly our sense of happiness might be seen that way too.

But, to suggest such a thing, don’t we need to get to the heart of what happiness is? It seems obvious, but have you ever tried to pin down exactly how you conceive of happiness? Few of us do, and as a result it can remain abstract and half-considered, despite the hunger to pursue it that defines much of the western world.

A History of Happiness

“Since we all of us desire happiness, how can we be happy?” asked Plato in 380 BC, and – despite varying definitions of across cultures and eras – this fascination endures today. In recent years, the science of positive psychology has sought to define and measure the assorted shades of happiness, with varying success. Perhaps that is the real seduction of happiness: that we can’t quite define it in truly fixed terms because it is as intricately woven and unique as our DNA.

Is happiness simply an emotion, or a state of being? Is it a gift, or a skill? Does it rely on quality, or quantity? And what does it look like? Is it big, or small? Loud, or lightly whispered? Does it sparkle, or sigh?

Happiness is a tricky mistress; because everybody
 seems to classify her differently, and sometimes what we think will make us happy doesn’t quite do the job in the way we’d hoped. This is why it can be helpful to try to define (and, perhaps, regularly redefine) happiness, because the more sincere the definition, the more it can serve us; offer us a reason for being; be our mission should we choose to accept it…

A good way to begin to conceptualise your own story of happiness, is to think about what you stand for.

What kind of happiness do you stand for?

John Lennon famously said, in regard to his politics, “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” Similarly, if your happiness doesn’t stand for something – if your idea of it is vague, or simply inherited from others (the media, your culture etc.) – you might find you’ve being accepting mediocre and unfulfilling versions of it. Maybe for you happiness is political; maybe you believe in a universal basic income, or a share-economy. Maybe happiness is freedom: from the dreary office cubicle or student debt.

Far be it from me to supply you with a narrative for happiness, the task is yours and yours alone. Yet, if you’ve ever pondered “will [insert person/job/object here] make me happier?” then it stands to reason that you should have a clear (albeit evolving) definition – a story – of happiness. How else could we ever hope to glean authentic answers to such questions?

One of my favourite definitions of happiness is this one:

“Happiness can’t be reduced to a few agreeable sensations. Rather, it is a way of being and of experiencing the world—a profound fulfilment that suffuses every moment and endures despite inevitable setbacks.” — Matthieu Ricard

 

I think I’m pretty happy with that as my ‘story of happiness.’ What about you?

Try It: Write the Story of Your Happiness

If you want to explore your very own story of happiness – to begin to paint a clearer picture of this oft elusive seductress – as always: I suggest you write it out. Start a blank page in a journal or notebook, and begin with the words:

Happiness is…

Then, without stopping, editing, or censoring yourself, write for five minutes. Inevitably, you’ll have been carrying around some definitions that you’ve inherited but that may not suit you anymore, and in my experience the longer you write, the further you get beyond these ‘stock’ answers. You might find it helpful to write a ‘Happiness isn’t…’ list too, if you sense you’ve got some pretty stubborn definitions to shake off.

This ‘free-write’ doesn’t have to make much sense, think of it more as a cleansing ritual: a way to rinse away any particularly sticky or stale stories. You may even choose to do the exercise two or three times. As I say, the longer you write, the clearer you usually get.

My hope is that, eventually, you’ll strike gold, and by that I mean you’ll get a definition that makes you think, “hallelujah, that’s it! That’s what it’s all about!” It might be as succinct as a few words, or a long and elaborate manifesto, whatever feels right. Keep going until you get there.


Share?

If you want to share a snippet of your story – or a favourite quote like mine – I’d love to see it! You can either post it in the comments below, email it to me megan[at]meganchayes[dot]com or share it on Instagram with #happinessisastory and tag me @megan.c.hayes so I definitely won’t miss it.

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On Wild Optimism, or the #1 Rule to Getting Everything You Want

how-to-be-optimistic

I’ve suffered my fair share of angst.

When I was thirteen I wrote, “I hate everything” on my bedroom wall, in pencil. Yes, pencil. I was so apathetic, even my acts of delinquency were half-hearted.

There was a time when I truly, genuinely, truthfully thought that nothing good would ever happen to me.

Over time, my mind has changed substantially (the other day I actually said to a friend, in all seriousness, “enthusiasm is my religion.” It’s a wonder I have any friends.)

Over time, I began to expect that good things might actually happen. I began to act like good things might happen. And – lo and behold! – they did.

No, I’m not an advocate of The Secret (sorry, Rhonda.) I was merely cultivating optimism; wild optimism. Unrestrained enthusiasm. Wanton chance-taking. Disproportionate dedication.

I began to commit to possibility.

Of course, these good things weren’t always easy, or obvious, or how I expected them to be, but they were very definitely happening. I was just going for it, and in just going for it, I gave things – great things – the opportunity to occur.

Little by little, I began to think that wild optimism was the best chance I had at a life I enjoyed, that was purposeful, & that had meaning; wild optimism was the only way of cajoling myself into going for what I wanted, and of promising myself I’d be okay when things didn’t work out.

What is wild optimism?

Wild optimism is letting yourself believe in all those things you secretly want; and the things you don’t dare want because they’re simply too whimsical to admit to. It’s throwing your hat in the ring. Taking a punt. Placing your bets (and all those other clichés.)

It means you have to participate.

Martin Luther King did not become a trailblazer in the African-American Civil Rights Movement because he thought, what’s the point? Marie Curie didn’t become the first woman to win a Nobel prize because she said to herself, don’t get too big for your boots now, Marie. Mahatma Gandhi didn’t lead India to independence by thinking, meh. No. They took positive action; they were wild optimists. And optimism is empowerment. They came, they conquered.

Reality Check?

Wild optimism is not expecting that nothing bad will ever happen (contrary to a popularly held belief, ‘optimist’ is not a synonym of ‘stupid.’) It is not about devaluing the negative. We all know Marie Curie could have done with a healthy dose of caution. Yet, wild optimism is realising that, by the law of averages alone, eventually you’ll catch a break, and that expecting the best is just as valid as expecting the worst, neither is a more accurate version of “reality.”

We think of a “reality check” as a dose of cynicism; sometimes it can be a dose of wild optimism. [Tweet it!]

Of course, wild optimism is not a magic wand; the difficult stuff still happens. It continues to for me, and I imagine it will do for you, too. Yet, short of pencilling hate memos on our walls, it might be the best chance any of us have got.

You don’t get anything if you don’t participate, but there’s a chance – even if it’s a teeny tiny one – that you’ll get everything if you do.

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