The lost art of joy – Move!

What’s your vision of bliss? Massage? Sitting by the beach with a pina colada? Enjoying a sumptuous dinner with friends?

Most relaxation fantasies don’t involve sweat.

So it’s almost a bit counter-intuitive that exercise is one of the most frequently associated habits of happy people. Although maybe it’s not so counter-intuitive, as there is strong anecdotal evidence of the “runner’s high” – the feeling of euphoria that some people feel after a session of vigorous exercise, the “endorphin buzz” that ironically doesn’t have anything to do with endorphins!

Endorphin buzz or no, exercise is certainly one way of enhancing the joy in your life. I previously wrote about the work of George MacKerron from the University of Sussex, who used an app he created to map the correlation of happiness to activity and location. Using the hundreds of thousands of data points from the tens of thousands of users, he found that the times that people recorded the highest levels of happiness and life satisfaction were during sexually intimate moments (on a date, kissing, or having sex). Number two was during exercise.

Physical fitness is good for us. I’ve never seen a study that shows exercise to be a bad thing. Ultimately, it’s not how fat you are that’s important for your longevity, it’s how fit you are, and the way to get fit is to exercise. Physical exercise isn’t just good for the body but good for the brain as well. While the exact pathways are still being determined, there’s good evidence that moderate regular physical activity improves the balance of pro- and anti-inflammatory mediators in the body and in the brain. In the brain, this improves the overall function of our brain cells. Exercise is also thought to increase the production of a growth factor called BDNF which helps the brain cells grow new branches and improves their ability to form new pathways, which in turn, has been shown to improve mood disorders like anxiety and depression.

Exercise is great, but not everyone is ready to suddenly get up and run a half-marathon, me included. These days, I’m like a walrus on tranquillisers. I’m certainly not about to jump up and go for a jog. Some people have physical injuries or conditions that limit their capacity for physical exercise.

So how do you find the balance between maximising the joy-enhancing effects of exercise while not pushing yourself so far and causing yourself some unhappiness?

Simply, move more.

Where are you at with you’re level of exercise right now? If you could turn it into a scale from 1 to 10 (where 1 is completely sedentary, and 10 is your ideal version of regular exercise), what would you rate? The next question is, what’s one thing you could do to go one point closer to 10? So let’s just say that you walk 200m from your house to the bus stop in the morning, and the same on the way home at night. For you, that might be a 3/10. What else could you do to make that 3 turn into a 4?

You don’t have to go for vigorous two-hour walks or run up every set of stairs you come across to be happy. Just move, and move that little bit more. That will help build joy in your life.

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The lost art of joy – Regret

I took my son to see the latest Star Wars movie, “The Last Jedi” this afternoon. Don’t worry, no spoilers here. I don’t want to ruin the enjoyment for anyone.

What I can say is that one of the strong themes of the movie was regret. In this movie, Luke Skywalker, the hero of the original Star Wars trilogy, was in self-imposed exile, hiding physically and ‘spiritually’ (from the power of the force), because of the choices he made.

Everyone has regrets, the ‘what could have been’ … the one who got away, the job you could have had, the fight you wish you hadn’t, the investment you didn’t make or possibly the one you did. Like death and taxes, whether big or small, we all collect some regrets as we walk along life’s path.

Regret isn’t necessarily bad, it can be an opportunity to move forward into joy if it’s handled the right way. If regret is eventually going to lead to joy, then it has to spur us on to make adaptive changes. It’s learning from our mistakes. We might realise how we have been too busy to spend our time according to what’s valuable for us, or not given enough, or not looked after ourself enough, and we resolve to eat better, work less, or give more to others. There are so many different examples of how joy can come from acting mindfully and adaptively on our feelings of regret.

But sometimes regret becomes overwhelming, where instead of riding the wave of regret to power us forward, it dumps over the top of us and we are swamped by it’s deluge. They can sometimes merge into an overall feeling of being wrong or bad, it may cause paralysis because you mourn what you could have or should have done, and can’t seem to make a better decision going forward.

If any good, if any joy, is going to come from those experiences we may be regretting, then we have to grab our surfboard. Remember:
1. It’s ok to fail. Failure is inevitable. Without it, there can be no success. What’s done is done.
2. Make lemonade. Learning from what happened takes the lemons that you’re stuck with and makes them into something better.
3. Keep looking forward. Once you stop looking to the past mistakes, you can start focussing on future opportunities
4. Be mindful. Engage in the present moment to enhance your current joy.
5. Be values driven. You’re much less likely to regret decisions that you make if they are based on your values. But if things don’t go according to plan, you can always go back to step 1.

It’s that committed action to our values that ultimately enhances our joy, now and in the future.

The lost art of joy – Beauty

Cottesloe Beach, Western Australia, at sunset

I like to flirt with photography.

There’s a particular ambience about taking photos, especially landscape photography, at either dawn or dusk. The softer light, the interplay of shadows, all make the end of the day a great time to wander around and take some photographs. I’ve always lived on the east coast of Australia, so I don’t ever get to see the sunset over the ocean, but late last year I was at a conference in Perth, Western Australia, so I thought I would seize the moment. I analysed the weather forecasts, and on the only sunny day of my trip, I skipped the afternoon workshops and went to Cottesloe Beach. There, I sat in front of the Indiana Tea House, the chill of the icy gale creating a stunning contrast to the majesty of the sun dipping into the sea, then the pink and orange glow fading beyond the expansive horizon.

It was a moment of profound beauty, a moment of aesthetic richness in the vast tapestry of the earth’s natural grandeur.

I remember that moment as one of joy. I was cold, and I was tired and I was hungry, but those aren’t the feelings that I’ve tagged to my memory of that event. The joy of beauty trumped my usual hangriness.

That bond between beauty and joy has been confirmed in broader studies. George MacKerron, now a lecturer at the University of Sussex, used an app he created to map the correlation of happiness to activity and location. He has tens of thousands of users and hundreds of thousands of data points. The times that people recorded the highest levels of happiness and life satisfaction were during sexually intimate moments (on a date, kissing, or having sex) and during exercise. The next three types of moments where people recorded the highest levels of happiness were all related to beauty: when at the theater, ballet, or a concert; at a museum or an art exhibit; and while doing an artistic activity (e.g. painting, fiction writing, sewing).

But what about beauty links it to happiness?

I think it’s a complex answer to a simple question.

Some people believe that physical beauty, especially of people, is related to happiness of those people. The more beautiful you are, the happier you are. That might seem true, but like beauty itself, the assumption is superficial.

Beauty is not specifically related to the usual markers of happiness (colloquially known as the “Big Seven”: wealth, family relationships, career, friends, health, freedom, and personal values). It’s not something that meets our material needs or aspirations. So the observation that beauty is associated with joy means there must be something deeper to it.

Stendhal, a French writer in the 18th century, wrote, “Beauty is the promise of happiness.”

I think that’s closer to the money.

It may be that our appreciation of beauty is because it is able to encourage the feelings we associate with happiness: calmness, connection (to history or to the divine), wealth, reflection, appreciation, hope.

Beauty offers a portal directly to our emotions. It transcends conscious thought and speaks directly to our soul. It communicates in a language that can never be described in just words.

I travelled from one side of Australia to the other but you don’t have to travel 5,000 kilometres to experience beauty. Beauty is usually all around us, but so often we aren’t paying attention. Mindfulness, being in the present moment, paying attention to what’s around you, can help you unlock the beauty that’s all around you, if you take the time to appreciate it.

See if you can experience something beautiful in your every day life, and unlock the joy it contains.

The lost art of joy – Kindness

Kindness is like a campfire – it gives light, it gives warmth, and it brings people closer together.

I recently heard a story of a new mum in Canberra who returned to her car after a physically and emotionally taxing day, staying with her sick baby in hospital, only to find that an overly zealous parking inspector had added to her distress by issuing her with a parking ticket. She was initially distraught by the discovery, but when she opened the envelope, she found more than just the ticket. She also found a note from complete stranger who just happened to be passing by. The note read: “I saw your car had a parking ticket on it, I’m sure whatever you were going through at hospital is tough enough so I have paid for you … Hope things get better!”

It was such a small act, but the effects of this stranger’s kindness was so profound. The financial exchange was minimal, but the joy and hope it generated were enormous.

And that’s the thing about kindness. One of the best things you can do for your health and happiness is to be kind to other people. Altruism activates rewarding neural networks, essentially the same brain regions as those activated when receiving rewards or experiencing pleasure. Studies also show that both the hormones and the neurotransmitters in the brain involved in helping behaviour and social bonding can lessen stress levels and anxiety. The immune system and autonomic nervous systems are positively affected by the quality and extent of social networks, and increased sociability and concern for others’ wellbeing can improve immune system and stress responses.

But kindness isn’t just about what it does for us, but it’s also about what it does for those to whom it’s directed. The joy and hope of kindness is bidirectional. Like the story of the mum with the sick baby, the kindness of a stranger was a ray of light in an otherwise very dark time. Sometimes those simple acts can make the difference between someone getting through or giving up.

There are infinite ways to show kindness, but the thing that links them together is unselfishness, the “disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others”, or in less formal language, simply giving with no strings attached.

If you’re looking for some ideas on some new ways to show kindness, the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation has plenty of them. Check out https://www.randomactsofkindness.org/kindness-ideas.

The lost art of joy – Simplicity

Over the last couple of days, we talked about joy through balance, balance of our stress levels and balance of our time commitments.

There is another aspect of balance and joy – the balance in our physical life, the joy inherent to a life of simplicity.

In our modern western society, we grow up with a couple of implicit assumptions – rich people are happy, and poor people are not happy. Sort of capitalism’s golden rule. But are those assumptions true?

In the late 1970’s, Philip Brickman and his colleagues published a study in which they suggested that people who had won the lottery were no happier than a similarly matched control group who had not won any money.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the idea that joy can be attained from a simple life is as old as the ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus, who history records, sought a tranquil life – “a state of satiation and tranquility that was free of the fear of death and the retribution of the gods. When we do not suffer pain, we are no longer in need of pleasure, and we enter a state of ‘perfect mental peace’.” He spent his time in a garden and taught his school of philosophy there. He was content to eat simple meals, and aspired to a neutral mood.

So if joy can be found in the simple life, and is not necessarily guaranteed through material wealth, why do we have have expensive houses filled with expensive cars, whole wardrobes of designer clothes we hardly wear, subscribing to 200 channels on massive wide-screen TV’s that we don’t have time to watch because we’re on social media on our expensive smart phones, complaining about the unrepayable personal debt that we have.

This post is certainly not a diatribe against all material things or debt necessarily. I love my iPhone X, my Apple Watch, my iPad pro etc etc. I don’t need them all, but I like them. It would be hypocritical to push an anti-consumerism line while being stocked up with nearly every Apple product I can fit on my person.

The key is balance. Embracing a level of minimalism doesn’t guarantee happiness, but trimming some of the unnecessary trappings of materialism can make room for those things that count more in terms of joy.

Embracing a level of minimalism is a means to an end. It frees up some of our most finite resources like time, money, energy, and helps to remove stress. It frees up all of these resources that you can now start investing in what brings you purpose.

Finding joy through minimalism is an expression of living through your values, which we discussed in an earlier post. It’s much easier to say no to things that have no significant value when we understand what is that is of significant value.

One we know what is truly important to us, we can start clearing our lives of all the things that clutter our lives, the material possessions that suck up our time and unbalance our quest for joy.

Writing about minimalism at a time like Christmas, one of the biggest shopping seasons of the year, is always a little ironic. That said, I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t be buying presents for others, and that we should abandon Christmas shopping altogether. Though we can use the opportunity to declutter a little by giving in other ways.

Perhaps all of those clothes you aren’t wearing can be given to your local church or charity to pass on to those whose wardrobe is sparse. Perhaps you can have a garage sale to thin out the junkyard of unused appliances in your house, and donate the proceeds to feed those who are hungry.

That is the generosity of Christmas at its best and has the added bonus of decluttering your life – a double whammy of joy at Christmas.

The lost art of joy – Striking the right chord

In yesterday’s post, we talked about the joy thief of excessive stress, and about finding the right balance to optimise our emotional homeostasis.

Many people assume that if excessive stress leads to no joy, then having a life of no stress would be the opposite and lead to a life of untold happiness. Except, it doesn’t. No stress may feel great in the short term, but a life of absolutely no stress is a different form of malaise, leading to emotional weakness, something which is just as joy-sapping as excessive emotional strain.

As I said yesterday, it’s all about balance.

So how do you know where the optimum is between not enough and too much? The answer to that lies in the humble guitar string.

I really don’t know a lot about guitars, but I do know that when you first put a new string on the guitar, it’s unstretched – there’s no strain on it at all. If all you did was tied the two ends of the string to the tone peg and the tuning peg, the string would remain limp and lifeless. It wouldn’t be able to do anything useful. It certainly wouldn’t play a note. When the tuning peg is twisted a few times, there is some tightness in the wire. The string is now under tension (i.e. stress). It’s now able to play a note of some form, so it can do some work and fulfil some of the function of a guitar string, though the note’s out of tune.

With a small adjustment, the string reaches its optimal tension and can play the correct note! This is the point where the string is fulfilling its designed purpose. Optimal stress equals optimal function.

With further tightening of the string, the perfect pitch is lost, but the string can still produce a sound of some form. With more tension, the string can still make a noise, but it’s off-pitch, and on a microscopic level, the fibres inside the cord are starting to tear. If the string were wound further and further, it would eventually break.

If this ratio of the tension of the string versus the usefulness of the string were to be plotted as a graph, it would look like an upside down “U”. This is the classic stress/productivity curve.

Each of us has our own particular point where we are in tune. When we know where our sweet spot is, we can operate within it, achieving our best in life without doing ourselves harm. This is the first point that we need to identify on our own personal stress/productivity curve. This is the point of maximum productivity.

We also need to understand that a bit more stress is ok. It’s inevitable that we are going to be stressed beyond what we usually cope with at times. Without that challenge, there would be no growth. Challenges usually hurt. You can’t have growth without pain. Our muscles adapt and grow when they are pushed just beyond their optimal load. The key is learning how far we can push ourselves before we start to falter and fail. This is the second point we need to discover on our personal stress/productivity curve. This is the point of maximum growth.

We understand where these points are on our own personal stress-productivity curve when we listen to our inner selves and learn from our mistakes. Once we have found our own note, we can sense when our bodies and minds are starting to stray outside of our optimum performance, to listen when we’re not quite in tune. Joy is much more likely to thrive if we are playing our own notes in tune, striking the right chord.

The lost art of joy – Life-life balance

It’s all about balance …

Balance. It’s an interesting concept. We see it all the time, all around us, because nearly everything around us relies on some form of balance to function properly. Indeed, we need a particular form of balance, called homeostasis, in order for our bodies to keep functioning at their optimum level.

That’s no different for our schedule. If we don’t get our schedule right, if our priorities are out of kilter, then our lives fail to perform at their optimum level, and we open the door to the joy-thief of excessive stress.

The prevailing concept of optimised priorities in our society since the 70’s and 80’s is “work-life balance” – the idea being that work (career and ambition) and lifestyle (health, pleasure, leisure, family) are different and separate.

Though as one of my very clever, slightly workaholic friends says, it’s a bit of a false dichotomy. People can get immense pleasure from their careers as much as people can find ‘lifestyle’ activities distinctly un-pleasurable. What we need is a life-life balance.

The problem lies in how we define ‘work’ and ‘life’. Work and leisure can both bring pleasure. So we just need to redefine what ‘work’ and ‘life’ consist of, and we can have a meaningful conversation.

There are probably lots of ways of conceptualising this, but for me, I think of ‘work’ as ‘anything that makes you feel less refreshed than you felt before you started’. And, ‘Rest and recreation’ is the opposite of work. Rest and recreation is ‘anything that makes you feel more refreshed at the end than you felt at the beginning’.

As an example, some people love gardening. They love being outside in the fresh air, on their knees in the dirt, weeding and fertilizing, knowing that come spring they will have a lawn like a carpet framed by a floral tapestry. Despite it being physically demanding, they feel more relaxed and invigorated for their few hours in the garden. For them, gardening is rest and recreation. Personally, I hate gardening. I could think of nothing worse. I’m a Darwin-style gardener … it’s survival of the fittest for the plants in my garden! Gardening would suck the life out of me, so for me, gardening would be work.

For most people, paid and unpaid work and study would be considered ‘work’, but for my hyper-intelligent, slightly workaholic friend, work and study stimulate her. She loves being productive, learning new things and challenging herself. Her work and her study are not ‘work’ for her. They are for me though. I like learning, to a point, but for me, “much study is a weariness unto the flesh”. I would much rather be having a massage than reading a textbook.

So what is the optimum balance of work and R&R to have the best life-life balance? Again, there are no hard and fast rules here. The key is learning your limits and sticking to them. More about this in future blog posts. But as a general guide, I have three main rules:

1. The Triple-8 Rule
The Triple-8 Rule is: “8 hours work, 8 hours sleep, and 8 hours rest and recreation make up the 24 hour day.”

2. The Sabbath Rule
The Sabbath Rule is: “If God rested on the seventh day, then so should you.”

Whatever your schedule, make sure you abstain from work at least one day a week.

3. The Holiday Rule
The Holiday Rule is: “Take at least two weeks holiday every year.”

We have the Holiday Rule because we need extended R&R to further refresh our bodies and minds.  A study of more than 12,000 middle-aged men over the course of a decade showed that annual vacations were associated with a decrease risk of death, especially from heart attacks. When we have an extended time of rest and recreation, our stress hormones have a chance to rebalance.

To achieve this state of renewal, we need at least 10 days of R&R in a row, but a full 14 days is better. So having a few four-day weekends scattered throughout the year isn’t enough – you need two weeks as a block (and more if you can!) Two weeks off a year still gives you fifty weeks to be productive, and if you have those two weeks off, you’ll find that your fifty weeks will be more productive than a full year without a break.

Balance is the key. When you have balance, you have life. When you have life, joy can flourish.