The lost art of joy – Something to do

“So, what do you do?”

I don’t like that question. We all ask it as a relatively benign conversation starter, but it still makes me cringe a little. It’s not that I’m not proud of what I do, but so often the moment I tell people that I’m a doctor, they assume that I’m rich or pretentious, or that they suddenly have a segue to some free medical advice.
“Oh, you’re a doctor hey? Pleased to meet you … so, uh, can you have a quick look at this mole on my neck?”

It’s interesting that we treat someone’s occupation as the second most important thing to know about them after their name, and it shows how subliminally important our occupations are to us.

And I think that’s largely to do with the personal and social value of purpose.

It’s starts from childhood doesn’t it? “When I grow up, I want to be …”

“I want to do nothing with my life” said no kindergarten child ever. Our subject choices in through high school, and out decisions after high school, to go to University or join the military, or taking a job in a trade, come down to what we want to do, to what we want to be. We all want to be someone, to do something. We all aspire to a life of meaning through purpose, because deep down, having a life which makes a difference is much more rewarding to us than having a life than means nothing.

Happiness is someone to love like we discussed yesterday, but happiness is also something to do.

It’s well known that long-term unemployment is associated with poorer physical and mental health outcomes including increased stress and isolation, depression and anxiety, heart disease and a myriad of other illnesses.

By contrast, according to research done at Deakin University, engaging in activities that provided a sense of purpose was strongly associated with wellbeing. It could be paid employment although in order to increase wellbeing, the employment had to provide more than just financial security. However, any activity that provided purpose tended to increase wellbeing, such as volunteering or being a part of a club like Rotary.

Knowing what we know about joy, it’s easy to see why engaging in activities which give purpose to life also increases our joy. Like having someone to love, having something to do that provides purpose usually involves committed action to our values, incorporating psychological flexibility, kindness, giving, moving, learning laughing … the list goes on.

There are several keys to ensuring that what we do is truly purposeful, and thus provides the greatest opportunity for joy to flourish

First, “It’s not about you.” This was the first sentence in Rick Warren’s phenomenally successful book, “Forty Days of Purpose”. True purpose in life goes beyond our needs and aims to fulfil the needs of others. This is a reflection of the true interdependency of the human race. We’re social creatures by design. We can survive independently, but we thrive collectively. We’re at our most successful when we’re dependent on each other and we work together. If we focus only on ourselves and our own needs, we fail to connect with others, and we miss out on the benefits of living in community.

Second, your purpose is inseparable from your values. As we’ve talked about several times in the last month, our values are integral to living a life rich in meaning and joy. Values reflect what is most important in the deepest part of ourselves that we can access. Our values provide us with direction. If our true purpose is going to enrich our lives and enhance our joy, then it will always be built on and synchronised with our deepest values. If your purpose and your values don’t align, then you need to reconsider either or both.

There are lots of other interesting and insightful explorations of purpose in the blogosphere but I don’t want to be over-prescriptive about it. Our own individual purpose in life is as unique to use as our fingerprints. So long as we commit the best of ourselves to being part of something bigger than ourselves.

Or as George Bernard Shaw wrote, “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

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The lost art of joy – Someone to love

In 1939, a doctor at Harvard University initiated a research study into long term health and happiness. He recruited 268 physically and mentally healthy young men who were all in their second year of study at Harvard University, including one John F. Kennedy, who went on to become US President. As the story goes, as part of the recruitment process, “the men who were chosen for the study had what the team considered a ‘masculine body build’: significant muscle mass, narrow hips and broad shoulders. The study participants were asked about masturbation and their thoughts on premarital sex. They were also measured for brow ridge, moles, penis function and the hanging length of their scrotum.”

As it turns out, the hanging length of one’s scrotum isn’t a significant factor in one’s long term health and happiness.

What is important is love.

Over the last eight decades, the study has grown to include a number of control groups, wives and children. The longer the trial has gone on, the stronger the conclusions, that “Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives, the study revealed. Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.”

The short and intense forms of love are very strongly associated with happiness. Remember the study we discussed in earlier posts from George MacKerron, who mapped the correlation of happiness to activity and location of the users of his specifically designed mobile phone app? With hundreds of thousands of data points, he was able to show that people were happy when they were exercising, when they were at the theatre, ballet, or a concert; when they were at a museum or an art exhibit; and while doing an artistic activity (like painting etc.). Though at the top of his list, the greatest number of people were at their greatest level of happiness during “sexually intimate moments” (on a date, kissing, or having sex).

Of course, love is more than just a good snog, but it demonstrates that intimate connection with another person you love, and who loves you, is an intense and intoxicating source of joy.

Other research into the relationship between love and joy shows the same thing as the Harvard Study of Adult Development. The “Very Happy People” study showed that there was a 0.7 correlation between social support and happiness, which is higher than the connection between smoking and cancer. People with one or more close friendships are more likely to be happier, and those with few social connections are more likely to be depressed than those who have more social connections. People with strong and healthy relationships are less likely to feel stressed by challenging situations. Supportive marriage is a cause of happiness.

We always need to be careful in interpreting these sorts of conclusions, remembering that correlation does not equal causation – people don’t get depressed because they have no friends. Often times there are underlying factors contributing to both a persons depression and difficulty in forming solid friendships.

What we can safely say is that happiness and love are intimately connected. The deeper the social bond, the more likely there is to be happiness.

It’s also important to remember that it’s not quantity of the social connections that’s important, but the quality of the social connections. A hundred loose associates, or deep but unequal, unreciprocated relationships are not associated with happiness. Joy comes from sincere, committed love that gives as much as it receives.

Do those themes sound familiar? They are the same sort of themes that we have discussed on other blogs in this series, the same sort of things that are common to our personal search for joy – kindness, giving, honesty and acceptance, committed action to a deeper value. When you apply the same things that bring individual joy to a relationship, they also bring joy, but to more than just yourself.

And what else better sums up love, but sharing the best things in life with another person.

If you want to foster happiness, invest in quality connections with other people by sharing those same things that bring individual joy. Be thankful, be kind, be generous and be committed and there will be more than enough joy to go around.

The lost art of joy – Rest

So Christmas 2017 has come and gone for those of us just to the right of the International Date Line. How did you fare? Was your Christmas a day of joy?

Now we’re in the post-Christmas hangover, the come down from the sugar and ethanol excesses of the day before. In Australia, New Zealand and the UK, we call December 26th “Boxing Day”, although it doesn’t have anything to do with pugilism. The name most likely derives from the giving of Christmas “boxes”, a tradition which may date back to the Middle Ages when church members would collect money for the poor in alms boxes which were opened on the day after Christmas in honour of St Stephen, the first Christian martyr, whose feast day falls on 26 December. The tradition may even be older than that, possibly dating back to the Christianised late Roman empire. Either way, at some point St Stephen’s Day became associated with public acts of charity.

In modern Australia, the boxes that are usually associated with Boxing Day are the boxes you put all the loot you’ve acquired in the post-Christmas sales into. So it’s a bit of an irony that what was once a day of giving to those less fortunate have become about acquiring more things for yourself.

But I digress.

The post-Christmas sales are traditionally a day of high-stress chaos as throngs of enthusiastic shoppers crowd the malls again, to fight for car parking spaces, tables at cafes, space to walk around, and toilet cubicles. Hours of this at a time can suck the positivity out of even the hardiest of shoppers.

It doesn’t have to be this way though. The cure for post-Christmas languor doesn’t have to be more stress, but if anything, Boxing Day could easily be a day of rest.

Making time to rest is an important part of maintaining good health. Forms of deep relaxation, such as meditation, not only relieve stress and anxiety, but also improve mood. Deep relaxation can also decrease blood pressure, relieve pain, and improve your immune and cardiovascular systems. Relaxation doesn’t always mean sleeping (although good sleep also helps to maintain a good mood and good health overall) or just things like meditation. Rest and relaxation can involve having a laugh, which decreases pain, promotes muscle relaxation and can reduce anxiety. Rest and relaxation can involve taking the time to simply connect with friends without having to work hard to try and impress them. Even something as simple as a hug from a good friend, or patting your dog or cat, can be relaxing and mood lifting. Remember, R+R involves anything that makes you feel better at the end than it did at the beginning.

So, there’s still joy to be found, even in the post-Christmas hangover. This can be done as they did traditionally, by giving to those less fortunate, or in taking the time to relax and unwind from the celebration of Christmas, or even in the simple connection of a hug from a friend.

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 – Friendship

Last night, my family and I had dinner with an old friend.

I should clarify … by ‘old’, I don’t mean ‘geriatric’. I mean that I have known this friend for a long time. She is the person I have been friends with the longest, having first met her in early medical school nearly a quarter of a century ago. It’s a friendship that survives despite geographical, logistical and theological differences, because it’s built on the deepest mutual respect and care. I don’t have many friends, but this friend is definitely a keeper.

Friendships mean different things to different people. Some friends are gregarious, a source of instant joy, that person that always makes you laugh even when life makes you want to cry. Then there are those friends who enkindle that deeper sense of joy, because they are steadfast through the tough times.

In the 21st century, our concept of friendship has undergone some pretty radical changes. Before 2004, ‘social networks’ were the people you physically hung out with. Now when you talk about ‘social networks’, people assume you’re referring to Facebook.

Is physical social networking better than virtual? Everyone has their own opinion. We know that humans are wired for social interaction, with specific areas of the brain devoted to social behaviour, such as the orbitofrontal cortex. There are also neurotransmitters and hormones that are strongly associated with bonding and maintenance of social relationships, like oxytocin and β-endorphins. Research has shown that both humans and other primates find social stimuli intrinsically rewarding—babies look longer at faces than at non-face stimuli.

We also know that people who engage in social relationships are more likely to live longer, and that loneliness predicts depressive symptoms, impaired sleep and daytime dysfunction, reductions in physical activity, and impaired mental health and cognition. At the biological level, loneliness is associated with altered blood pressure, increased stress hormone secretion, a shift in the balance of cytokines towards inflammation and altered immunity. Loneliness may predict a shortened life-span.

It’s important to understand what loneliness is, and conversely, what defines good social relationships? Fundamentally, good or bad social relationships are related to the quality of the social interaction. This rule applies equally to real social networks and their on-line equivalents. So quality is fundamentally more important than quantity in terms of friendships, with that quality strongly determined by the connection within those social relationships. For example, loneliness “can be thought of as perceived isolation and is more accurately defined as the distressing feeling that accompanies discrepancies between one’s desired and actual social relationships”.

The corollary is that friendship can be thought of as perceived connection within social relationships, or the comforting feeling that accompanies the match between one’s desired and actual social relationships.

So healthy social relationships aren’t defined by the size of your network, but by the strength of the connections that your network contains, relative to what’s important to you. Just because you’re not a vivacious extrovert who is friends with everyone doesn’t mean that your social network is lacking. It also means that you can have meaningful connections to friends through social media, just as much as you can have meaningful connections through face-to-face interactions. It’s not the way you interact, but the quality of the connection that counts.

One way to increase the quality of your social connections is to enjoy your friendships mindfully. Mindfulness is being fully engaged in the present moment. So mindful friendships is to be fully engaged with the other people around you, to use all your senses to connect with those around you. To ignore the other social networks around you on your phone or tablet, keeping them out of sight and out of mind until afterwards.

Try it. At the next Christmas party, or when you’re with your loved ones on Christmas Day, turn off the phone and engage with the people around you as mindfully as you can, and see if you experience a new and improved form of Christmas joy.