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.

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The lost art of joy – Values

“Wait … what are you doing?”

There’s a deep part of our consciousness that acts as our inner emergency brake. You know, when you’re about to call your boss a jerk, or drunk text someone, or post something narky on social media, there’s that little voice inside your head that says, “Uh, do you really think that’s a good idea?”

Thankful most of us don’t end up drunk-texting our boss and would never let ourselves get in a position to do so. Still, it’s a good idea every now and then to reevaluate our general day-to-day decisions, our routines and patterns, to say to ourselves, “Wait … what are you doing?”

Yesterday we talked about the Serenity Prayer – “grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, Courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other”. We talked about acceptance – accepting the things we can not change because fighting with things we can’t change wastes our energy and gets us nowhere. We can also waste a lot of energy and not get to where we want to go by using all our energy going to the wrong place – either we drift on autopilot, doing what we’ve always done because, you know, it’s what we’ve always done, or we can deliberately set sail in the wrong direction, thinking that we’re doing the right thing.

One way that we can build our joy is to live rich and meaningful lives in service of our values. In knowing our values, we can know ourselves, and engage in life in its fullness. ’Values’ can mean different things to different people, but in the Acceptance and Commitment framework, values refer to “Leading principles that can guide us and motivate us as we move through life”, “Our heart’s deepest desires: how we want to be, what we want to stand for and how we want to relate to the world around us.”

Values help define us, and living by our values is an ongoing process that never really reaches an end. Living according to your values is like sailing due west. No matter how far you travel, there is always further west you can go. While travelling west, there will be stops along the way, stopovers along our direction of travel like islands or reefs. These are like our goals in life.

The difference between goals and values is important. You could set yourself a whole list of different goals, and achieve every one of them, but not necessarily find meaning or fulfilment if they all go against the underlying values that you have. So goals are empty and unfulfilling if they aren’t undergirded by your deeper values.

How can you understand your values? There are a couple of ways. Ask yourself: “What do I find myself really passionate about? What things irk me? If I could do anything I wanted, and money was no object, what would I do?” Is there a recurrent theme running through your answers?

There are other ways to discover what your values are. Some people have suggested writing your own eulogy (the speech someone gives about you at your funeral). It sounds a bit morbid, and it’s only a figurative exercise, but it tends to sharply clarify what you want your life to be like. What do you want your legacy to be? Think about the things that you want to be known for at the end of your life, and see if there’s a word that best describes those desires.

Understanding our values can help us to navigate the seasonal madness without becoming overwhelmed. When you understand what’s truly important to you, it’s much easier to focus on what’s really important and say no to the things that aren’t. For example, Your boss invites you to exclusive Christmas drinks are her house, with some of the regional executives. It’s on at the same time as the Christmas Carols concert your sister is performing in. If your core values are career success, then the choice is easy. If you know your values are family first, then the choice is easy. You can make the choice that will bring you the most joy, and enrich your life.

So before the malaise of merriment takes hold, say to yourself, “Wait … what are you doing?” Ensure that what you’re doing is aligned with your deepest values to maximise your joy this Christmas season, and beyond.