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 – 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 – 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 – Just what is joy?

Robin Williams is my favourite all time comedian. At his best, his jokes would come flying out faster than what my brain could process them, but I still found myself laughing pre—cognitively and only understanding why I was laughing once my brain had a chance to catch up. He was famous for his talent for improvisational comedy, something he demonstrated one night for a group of budding actors, using nothing but a pink scarf.

And yet, despite being one of the funniest people in history, he was plagued by depression and drug abuse and died by suicide in 2014.

In an interview after his death, James Lipton poignantly described Robin Williams,

“In the end, Robin is Pagliacci. He is Pagliacci, the cliche of the clown who cries – that was there every single minute, every single minute of his life, and what he did was he spared us the hard part, and he gave us the joy. What an extraordinary gift that was.”

It’s hard to understand how someone can be so seemingly full of joy, or at the very least, give so much joy to others, and still be so plagued with melancholy and psychological pain. The life and death of Robin Williams certainly challenges our understanding of the true meaning of joy.

So it’s pertinent to ask: What is joy?

Is joy laughter? Is it pleasure? Is joy the same as happiness? Is joy the absence of sadness? Is it the absence of suffering? Is joy within us, or outside our control? The answer is probably a combination of all of these things.

My dictionary explains that joy is “a feeling of great pleasure and happiness”. The ancient Greeks considered that joy had two different parts – physical pleasures associated with biological needs, and feelings of higher pleasure. Physical pleasures, such as eating and sex, are known as ‘hedonia’ while the higher feelings of pleasure, associated with the appreciation of art, music, et cetera, as ‘eudaimonia’ (‘a life well lived’) after the distinction that Aristotle made in his writings on the subject.

Is joy the same as happiness or pleasure? C. S. Lewis didn’t think so, “I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again … I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.”

George Bernard Shaw considered joy to be something greater than oneself, “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.”

It’s certainly true that depressed people can still laugh, and like Robin Williams, can make others laugh, so joy can certainly be both superficial and deep, and neither are mutually exclusive.

To add something else into the mix, the Christmas message of joy comes from the birth of the Saviour (Luke 2:10-12), so one of the Biblical meanings of joy stems from hope.

So the single definitive concept of true joy is elusive. Perhaps trying to define joy is like trying to define the ocean. We have all experienced the ocean and its beauty, and many of us have felt the coolness on our bodies as we have swam in it, or felt the awesome power of its currents and waves. Yet the ocean is so deep, so powerful and so mysterious that no one can ever truely comprehend it for itself.

We have all experienced the wonder and beauty of joy, although it is so deep, so powerful and so mysterious that no one can ever truely comprehend joy.

Not that it will every stop us from trying.

~~~
If you are struggling with mental illness and you need urgent assistance, please talk to someone straight away:

In Australia:
Lifeline ~ 13 11 14
BeyondBlue ~ 1300 22 4636 or https://www.beyondblue.org.au/about-us/contact-us
Suicide Callback Service ~ 1300 659 467 or https://www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au

USA:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline ~ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

New Zealand:
Lifeline Aotearoa 24/7 Helpline ~ 0800 543 354

UK:
Samaritans ~ 116 123

For other countries: Your Life Counts maintains a list of crisis services across a number of countries: http://www.yourlifecounts.org/need-help/crisis-lines.

Seven Elements of Good Mental Health: 1. Temet Nosce – The Prospering Soul

Life shouldn’t just be about avoiding poor health, but also enjoying good health. Our psychological health is no different.

Before we take a look at poor mental health, let’s look at some of the ways that people can enjoy good mental health and wellbeing. This next series of posts will discuss seven elements that are Biblically and scientifically recognised as important to people living richer and more fulfilling lives.

These aren’t the only ways that a person can find fulfilment, nor are they sure-fire ways of preventing all mental health problems either. They’re not seven steps to enlightenment or happiness either.   But applying these principles can improve psychosocial wellbeing, and encourage good mental health.

1. Temet nosce – “Know thyself”

Generally speaking, there are two ways that a person can live their lives, as a boat or as a buoy – those who set out to find life or to let life find them.

Some people are quite content to be buoys – to stay in the same place and let the social currents and tides bring different elements to them. They’re more passive in their approach, content to just accept that life will just come and go as it will.

Then there are those who don’t want to stay in the one place, but want to chart their own course, discover what life is for themselves. Whose to say what’s best for each individual person? We all have our own choices to make.

For those people who are boats, who want to set their course and discover life, it helps a lot in the journey to know where you’re going.

This may seem obvious enough. In fact, it seems too obvious – we often think we know where we’re going when in reality, we haven’t a clue where we really want to go or how to get there.

For starters, it helps to know where you want to go. Some of us are gifted with an amazing confidence, self-assurance and motivation, and have the ten year plan all mapped out, but those people are the minority. It’s fine if we don’t know where exactly we want to go, but what would help every since person is to at least know the direction you wish to sail in, which are our values.

The word ‘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.” [1] 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 a long the way, stop-overs 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 in their accomplishment if they’re all 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? I have always found myself irritated by mass-marketing, and more recently by disingenuous social media memes and unscientific health messages. The theme – ‘truth’. I know, it sounds a bit trite, like some second-rate comic book hero, but I’ve mulled over this a lot, and for me, ‘truth’ is one of my deepest values.

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 is a word that best describes those desires.

If that’s a bit too confronting, there are some on-line tools that can also give you an idea. There is only so much a long list of questions can discover about you, but results of the survey can provide a starting point for further thought. There is a couple of free resources that may be helpful (though you will have to register):
* https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu – and click on the drop-down menu in the “Questionnaires” section, and select “Brief strengths test”
* http://www.viacharacter.org/Survey/Account/Register

One final note on the buoys and the boats – whether you’re a buoy or a boat, you’re still going to encounter large waves, strong currents, and wild storms, as well as peaceful weather. As a buoy, those adverse conditions will simply find you where you are. You can’t escape from them. You’re also going to experience those same large waves, strong currents and wild storms as a boat. The difference is that buoys have no choice but to ride out the adverse conditions. Boats, on the other hand, can use the power of the difficult circumstances to power them to their destinations if they can harness them correctly. Boats can’t outrun bad weather all the time. Adversity is inevitable. Happiness, contentment, enlightenment, or whatever you’re seeking, isn’t found in avoiding or controlling our adverse circumstances, but about learning how to follow our values in the midst of the calm weather or the wild.

As Christians, one of our primary values is our love for God and our desire to follow Jesus. Scripture teaches that each of us has our own unique path to follow. Ephesians 2:10, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” ‘Workmanship’ in the Greek is ‘poiema’ from which we get our English word ‘poem’. We are not a meaningless jumble of letters that makes no sense. We are a beautifully crafted blend of rhythm, harmony and meaning. You are a sonnet from the mouth of God. I believe that our individual purpose stems from our common purpose and values, like leaves are dependant on the branches, trunk and roots of the tree. I heard a brilliant summary of the purpose of the Christian life, which was simply “To know Christ, and to make Christ known.” I believe that it’s from this common value, shared by all Christians, that our direction in life stems from.

In knowing our values, we can know ourselves, and engage in life in it’s fullness.

References

[1]        Harris R. The happiness trap : how to stop struggling and start living. Boston: Trumpeter, 2008.