The lost art of joy – Full

Christmas time is a time of indulgence! And by the end of Christmas day, we’re usually full of something … stuffed full of food, or perhaps a skin full of Christmas ‘spirits’. There are some opinionated family members who are full of … ah … lets just say they’re metaphorically constipated.

While it’s nice to be full of good food and good wine, and not so nice to be full of oneself, the goal of this blog series is for everyone to be full of good cheer.

Which reminds me of a story … this story has been around a while so there are a few variations out there, but this is the one I remember.

A professor once cleared off his desk and placed on top of it a few items. One of the items was a large glass jar.

He proceeded to fill up the jar with golf balls until he could fit no more. He looked at the classroom and asked his students if they agree that the jar is full. Every student agreed that the jar was full.

The professor then picked up a box of small pebbles and poured them into the jar with the golf balls. The pebbles filled all of the openings in between the golf balls. He asked the students if the jar was full? Yes, they said, of course the jar is full.

Then the professor picked up a bag of sand and poured it into the jar. The sand filled in all of the empty space left between the golf balls and pebbles. He asked the class again if the jar was full. The students couldn’t argue, the jar was very full.

Finally, the professor pulled out two beers from under his desk and poured both of them into the jar filling the empty space between the sand. The students began to laugh. This demonstration had gone a lot further than any of them were expecting.

The professor waited until the laughter stopped. “I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life,” he started. “The golf balls represent the important things. Your family, children, health, friends and passions.”

“The pebbles represent the other things in life that matter, such as your job, house and car. The sand, that’s everything else, the small stuff.”

“If you put the sand in first, there is no room for the pebbles or golf balls.”

“The same goes for life. If you spend all of your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are most important. Pay attention to the important things in your life. Take care of the golf balls first, the things that really matter. The rest is just sand. You are dismissed.”

“But, what about the beer?” asked one student.

The professor smiled.

“There’s always room for a couple of beers.”

It’s an important lesson, and a very good illustration. You can have a full life, but it’s easy to become full of the stuff that doesn’t matter. When we focus on what’s important and get the balance right, when we put our values in first, we can still have a full life, but full of the things that matter to us the most.

There will always be time to clean the house or watch Netflix or take yourself shopping, but if you want to experience a Christmas, and indeed, a life of full of joy, put your values first. Enjoy time with your family. Play games with your kids. Look after those who are struggling, donate to a charity, plant trees … committed action in accordance with your values is the way to a rich and meaningful life of true joy.

And of course, there’s always time for a couple of beers 🙂

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The lost art of joy – Adaptability

A few years ago, I performed in a Christmas musical.

Thankfully, I got the part of the narrator – lots of lines to learn but no singing, because I sing like a cat with laryngitis. I was also hoping to get away without any dancing, because I dance like a dyspraxic hippo, but the director was adamant – all the cast had to participate in the closing number.

Rehearsals for the dance were somewhat embarrassing. There was me – middle-aged, sedentary, overweight and unfit – surrounded by a bunch of skinny, limber teenagers and twenty-somethings. The dance instructor would take us through the warm up and while I would be struggling to get my feet more than shoulders width apart or my fingers much past my knees, the teenage whippets would be doing the splits all the way to the ground, or bending forward with their palms on the floor. Even those who weren’t very good dancers made up for it by the fact that their body had to strength and flexibility to adapt to the moves they had to learn. My body was tight and unforgiving, and I had to work really hard to do what the flexible people did very simply.

The world is in constant motion. Every day brings new challenges as the swirling currents of our social and physical environments push and pull us in different directions. Our inner world swirls just as much, as our feelings and emotions ebb and flow, churn and whirl. The collision of the swirling oceans of our outer world and the turbulent air of our inner worlds can create rain, storms or even hurricanes of psychosocial distress. Even without the bad weather, the constantly changing social and emotional forces creates never-ending demands on our ability to cope, and the exigencies can be exhausting.

Just like those people who were physically more flexible were able to better cope with the demands of the dance number, those people who are emotionally more flexible are able to better cope with the demands of our inner and outer worlds.

Psychological flexibility is being able to adjust our short term feelings in service of our long term values. In the research, psychological flexibility actually refers to a number of dynamic processes that unfold over time, such as how a person adapts to fluctuating situational demands, reconfigures mental resources, shifts perspective, and balances competing desires, needs, and life domains.

In other words, psychologically flexibility involves travelling in the direction of your deepest values, but being in touch with the present moment so that adjustments can be made to keep you on track.

Being psychologically flexible is like turning south for a little while to compensate for the northerly breeze so you can keep sailing in the direction of your long term values.

In day to day life, being psychologically flexible means not holding too tightly to our feelings, emotions or thoughts which can change rapidly and which aren’t always reliably in service of our deeper values.

So how can we become more psychologically flexible so that we can enhance the joy that psychological flexibility encourages?

It starts with knowing what your values are, and moving towards them.

We also need to work on acceptance, allowing our feelings and emotions, as strong and as distressing as they are at times, to ebb and flow as they do without rigidly fighting against them or trying to suppress them.

In order to build our capacity to cope with changing situational demands, we also need to “stretch” our mental “muscles” like I needed to stretch my physical muscles to be able to dance better. To become more mentally limber,
1. Learn something new every day, even if it’s something small
2. Do something differently, even if it’s a small change, but don’t always stick to the same routine
3. Do different things, things that you may not have done before. Again, doesn’t have to be much, but try a different coffee order, or a new meal at a restaurant. Listen to some new music.
4. Challenge yourself. Just a little bit every day. It’s ok to be a little bit mentally uncomfortable. Stretching is good for you!

As you continue to grow more psychological flexible, you will open yourself to new and greater experiences of joy.

The lost art of joy – Vulnerability

 

“Masquerade!
Paper faces on parade …
Masquerade!
Hide your face,
so the world will
never find you!”

It was 1994 and I was a clown.

I say that quite literally. I was at Hillsong conference, doing a stream on drama and performance, and one of the available workshops was clowning. It was a transformative day in so many respects. We all put on clown clothes, with wig, full face paint and the big red nose, and I managed to score some of those big red clown shoes too. After the workshop, the facilitator encouraged us to leave the costume on and practice our new skills amongst the unsuspecting Hillsong delegates. So I spent the rest of the day, including riding the bus back to the main convention centre, dinner and the evening concert in full clown costume.

It was exhilarating.

I was painfully shy as a teenager. Actually, I had social anxiety disorder, debilitating shyness. I discovered drama and performance through the church youth group I was attending at the time and it helped me overcome a lot of insecurities and grow in confidence. Still, performing improv style in front of hundreds of strangers was not something I was comfortable with … until I donned the clown outfit. I had the perfect disguise – my own identity was hidden, and my new identity was associated with fun and laughter. I made hundreds of people laugh that afternoon because I could dance around, make silly jokes and sing silly song without fear of personal ridicule. I got three hundred people in the food court at dinner time to all sing Happy Birthday to someone. Sometimes I didn’t need to say anything at all, people just laughed at the shoes. Eventually I had to take off the wig and the shoes and literally wipe the smile off my face, and I was back to plain old me.

From ancient cultural traditions to the modern superhero, we’ve used masks to create new personas or hide old ones. Masks empower a temporary transformation. When you wear a mask, you disguise who you are which frees you from your own limitations, and at the same time, it projects a different persona, empowering you to act within a new set of rules that the mask allows.

I got to hide who I was and clown around because of the mask the clown costume provided me, but it wasn’t the real me, the authentic me. It was a version of me the mask had created. While the mask I wore that day made lots of people happy (including me), it wasn’t sustainable. I couldn’t stay as a clown forever. If I tried, I would have worn myself out. At best, the mask gave a surge of temporary happiness, not long term joy.

Our social connections bear a striking resemblance to my clowning experience. We live in a society which encourages masks. We are consumed with creating the right appearance, from designer clothes to botox injections. We have to say the right words to be liked by the right people, in our on-line and our real world communities. We harshly criticise those who don’t share our beliefs, who don’t fit into our ‘tribe’, and we try desperately to ensure we aren’t treated in the same way.

We fear real connection, because we fear shame and rejection.

We wear our masks, we put our paper faces on parade, hiding our faces so the world will never find us.

I have a wonderfully wise friend who, in recent conversation about this subject, said this,

“Wearing a mask all the time is exhausting. Sure, we all have to wear a mask to get through life intact … but we need to be able to take it off with people we really care about.  Otherwise we disconnect completely and that can be a very lonely place to be in all the time.”

I also love the work of Brene Brown, who has so many applicable quotes, it’s really hard to limit myself to just one … and that’s why I have two!

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

and

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”

Shame suffocates deep, sustainable joy. We might be able to use our mask to inspire a temporary happiness, but it’s only through authentic connection that we can experience joy in the truest sense.

Being authentic, being real, being vulnerable is scary! But without authenticity, without vulnerability – without being real – we can’t form the connections to others that allow real joy to flourish.

We don’t have to open ourselves up completely to everyone, but we do need to practice vulnerability with those who are most important to us. By being real, and being vulnerable, at least with those of us who are the most important to us, we can enhance our connection and in doing so, grow our joy.

The lost art of joy – Music

With only five days to go before Christmas, most people are rushing into the shops to purchase those last minute items.

The average shopping centre in the pre-Christmas week is an auditory and visual cacophony. Not only are there people EVERYWHERE, there are fairy lights, baubles, and tinsel everywhere! Then there are those Christmas carols, the auditory froth of tinny Christmas melody bubbling incessantly in the background. It’s all enough to make you want to shop on-line.

It’s such a shame the way Christmas carols have been subjugated and exploited for commercial gain. So many of the old Christmas carols are euphonious in their own right, with a lyrical profundity that encapsulates the deeper meaning of Christmas in just a few words.

In fact, music in general is fundamental to us as a language of emotion. The linguist Steven Pinker once said that music was “auditory cheesecake,” a purposeless byproduct of language development. But music is deeper than language. Neuroscience suggests that we’re hardwired to interpret and react emotionally to music from before we’re able to crawl, and well and truly before we develop language. Music activates most of our brain, from our frontal lobe and temporal lobe to process the sounds across both sides of the brain. Music also activates our visual cortex, our motor cortex, our memory centres and, not surprisingly, our deep emotional brain centres. It’s only if the song has lyrics that our language processing areas are activated.

Music has been shown to affect our physical bodies and our minds. Music helped to reduce blood pressure, heart rate and anxiety in heart disease patients, while upbeat music can have a very positive effect on our emotional wellbeing, so long as the music was happy and upbeat. Music that we expect to be happy also results in an increase of dopamine, the neurotransmitter of pleasure.

So the emotional connection that music carries is very important for our overall joy.

Listening to music can increase our joy. While the research supports the improvement in mood that comes from listening to happy, upbeat music, there’s a place for ‘sad’ or ‘angry’ songs too, which can connect directly to our souls and provide a type of catharsis that goes beyond trying to express our emotions through the clunky limitation of speech.

Music can help to scaffold memories, especially emotional memories. Remember the music playing when you had your first kiss? Or the song that they played at a friends funeral? Playing those songs related to happy times in your life can help you to recall and re-experience those uplifting emotions if you’re feeling down.

Music creates opportunities for healing. Hospitalised children were happier during music therapy (in which all the children were involved and could play with simple musical instruments like maracas and bells while a leader played the guitar) than they were in standard play therapy when their options puzzles and toys.

But more than anything, music increases joy through the power of human connection. Music is emotionally deeper than language and the social bond that music can create between people is much stronger than any intellectual or verbal connection. There have been numerous studies that demonstrate this – people who go to concerts and who go dancing report higher levels of subjective wellbeing than those people who listen to music on their own. People who create music together have higher levels of happiness and find other activities more pleasurable overall, an effect which has been demonstrated in groups of both adults and school children.

So if you want to increase your joy, engage with music, and use music to engage with other people … even if it is singing Christmas carols.

The lost art of joy – Learning

Solomon wrote: “Of the making of many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness unto the flesh”.

I loved that verse when I was at school. It was utilised more than once when my teachers wanted to give us more homework – “But, sir, the Bible says that too much homework is bad for you.” Not that my teachers cared, they just gave me more homework anyway.

Much study may be a weariness unto the flesh, but some study is actually very beneficial. Learning helps to promote joy, and joy helps to promote learning.

It’s been shown that learning is much easier when there’s joy involved. Co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, Dr David Rock said,

“Engagement is a state of being willing to do difficult things, to take risks, to think deeply about issues and develop new solutions … Interest, happiness, joy, and desire are approach emotions. This state is one of increased dopamine levels, important for interest and learning.”

and

“There is a large and growing body of research which indicates that people experiencing positive emotions perceive more options when trying to solve problems, solve more non-linear problems that require insight, [and they] collaborate better and generally perform better overall.”

This makes sense. According to the classical psychology principle of the Yerkes-Dodson law, optimal task performance occurs at an intermediate level of arousal, with relatively poorer performance at both lower and higher arousal levels. Too much stress (anxiety) or not enough stress (boredom) results in reduced performance. When someone is happy and engaged, their learning is at its optimum level.

But while it’s true that happiness and engagement create the optimal conditions for learning, it’s also true that learning created a sense of joy.

Learning new things is stimulating. Exposure to new information makes the brain work harder. We are very predictive creatures, and our brain has adapted to be predictive because it’s the most efficient way of processing the vast amount of information that we come across each day. After a while of being exposed to the same stimuli, our brains get a bit lazy. There’s no need to grow new branches and our brains become a bit stagnant. There’s no stimulation, so there’s no dopamine rush. We just get into our rut. But being exposed to new experiences, to new stimuli, is invigorating. Our brain can not longer rely on the same old predictive pathways, and new parts of the brain need to be engaged to process all of the different things we’re being exposed to. The dopamine cloud that comes from all of the novel stimuli is quite euphoric.

Learning something new helps our brain to stay supple. The brain is like a muscle – the only way to keep it flexible and strong is to exercise it. By constantly providing stimulation, our brain can better cope when unexpected events occur, because we’re already used to novel challenges. It helps us stay resilient by improving our psychological flexibility.

Learning something new can also give us a sense of accomplishment which is always good for our self-esteem and self-confidence.

There are many ways to learn new things – read new books, or if you’re not the reading type, find some interesting, factual documentaries. A great way of stimulating your brain is to learn a second language, which also gives you a great excuse to do the other thing that helps to grow your brain and your joy, which is to travel to a different country. Trying to speak a new language in a foreign country will really give your brain a workout, which may seem very daunting at first, but will help you grow immensely. You can also learn a new skill like craft, or a musical instrument. Your learning doesn’t just have to be about yourself – learn to juggle or make balloon animals, and use those skills to entertain people, or put a smile on a child’s face. That way the joy is shared through learning and giving.

Just remember your values when deciding what you would like to learn so that your learning is in step with your authentic self and enriches your life. And make sure you keep your work and life in balance as you carve out time to learn something new, all that study doesn’t become a weariness unto the flesh.

The lost art of joy – Laughter

(and part 2 – https://youtu.be/cZ4R4e_f3-c)
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I was lectured by Patch Adams once. He took his pants off.

When I was in medical school in the early 1990’s at the University of Queensland, Patch Adams gave a guest lecture. He was originally booked on a speaking tour and sadly, his other engagements cancelled, but he was extremely generous with his time, and visited our humble university anyway, to share his life story and his less-than-conventional views on practicing medicine. This was before the movie based his life was released (it came out in 1998), where he was portrayed by none other than the great Robin Williams.

It took a little while for the audience of young, idealistic, somewhat naive medical students to warm up, and in order to engage us, Patch took off his pants.

Everybody laughed!

It had the desired effect. He had everyone’s attention and it broke down the pretence and barriers. He later put on a pair of clown pants and continued to use humour to communicate his message of laughter, advocacy and social justice.

For the record, I have never taken my pants off to enable better communication with my patients, just so you (and anyone from the medical board who’s reading this) knows. It was the first and only time in my whole seven years of medical school that anyone ever delivered a lecture in their boxer shorts, and it’s not a customary way of engaging with one’s audience. Still, he made us laugh, and it was once of the most memorable lectures I have ever been to.

Laughter connects us. It certainly helped Patch Adams engage with people from all walks of life. Laughter equalises, because it is one of the most ubiquitous and natural of all human emotions.

And laughter is the best medicine, as the saying goes. According to the Mayo Clinic, laughter can lighten your load mentally and induce physical changes in your body. Laughing increases your intake of oxygen-rich air and stimulates your heart, lungs and other muscles. Laughter increases the endorphins that are released by your brain.

A good belly-laugh can also stimulate circulation and aid muscle relaxation which can help reduce physical symptoms of stress. Over the longer term, laughter can improve your immune system. Humour can actually release neuropeptides that help fight stress and potentially more-serious illnesses.

Laughter may even help to relieve pain by stimulating the body’s production of endorphins. Laughter can also make it easier to cope with difficult situations – like the saying goes, you either laugh or you cry. Laughter is also thought to lessen depression and anxiety.

Laughter is even thought to improve your cognitive function. As cognitive neuroscientist, Dr Scott Weems says, “Comedy is like mental exercise, and just as physical exercise strengthens the body, comedy pumps up the mind.”

It sort of goes without saying that laughter increases our joy levels. But it’s worth mentioning, because sometimes in the serious business of adulting, we can start taking things too seriously, and sometimes we just need a good laugh.

As always, it comes down to balance. There are times when we need to be serious, but we can’t be serious all the time. There are times when we just need to (metaphorically) take our pants off.

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.