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.

Advertisements

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 – Joy blindness

Light at the end of the tunnel …

Joy is a ubiquitous human experience, almost an innate function of the human brain.

Joy is a bit like vision for the soul.

Writing an entire months worth of blog posts on joy, then, is a little writing series of blog posts on art appreciation. The readers of a blog on art appreciation will be able to see the art, the blog helping them to better understand the art. The vast majority of people who will be reading these blogs on joy will be able to experience joy and (hopefully) the posts will help them better understand joy.

But what happens if you can’t experience joy in the first place? What about those people who have ‘joy blindness’, so to speak?

As I’ve been writing this blog every day, I’ve been mindful of those people who struggle to experience joy. For the most part, growing joy in our life is related to our actions or decisions, such as learning acceptance, aligning our direction in life with our values, forgiving ourselves and others etc. Hence why I have been exploring these concepts in my blogs thus far. But there are some people who will read these blogs and say, “But I’ve tried to do all these things, and nothing has worked. I want to experience joy like everyone else but all I have is sadness, anger, loneliness, mourning … I must be doing something wrong … it’s all my fault that I can’t experience joy … I don’t deserve to be happy.”

Remember yesterday when I talked about the work of Sonja Lyubomirsky and her colleagues who estimated that that intentional actions can contribute as much as 40% to a person’s feeling of happiness, where as circumstances could only contribute 10%? In their estimates, our genetics contributed to the other 50% of our overall happiness. Yesterday I made the comment that, even allowing for the generous estimations that were used to come to those final numbers, our actions were of much greater importance in our overall level of happiness than our circumstances.

But there was a second point to come out of the work of Lyubomirsky et al, that our happiness is related to factors beyond our control more than it is related to factors within our control.

For the vast majority of people, our genes, the biggest contributing factor to our joy, work fine. But there are some people whose genes do not work the same way, which makes them much more vulnerable to the effects of circumstances or personal actions. These are the people with major depression, who do not feel joy like the everyday person. There may be sources of joy all around them, but try as they might, they can not perceive it. They have ‘joy blindness’.

Depression is an abnormally low mood for an abnormally long time. Major depression sucks. Major depression is not just letting yourself feel miserable. So often, those without depression think that those with depression are weak, malingering, or wallowing in child-like self-pity. Despite the enormous strides in mental health education and awareness that have been made in the last couple of decades, there’s still a strong current of stigma that flows through our society, adding an additional barrier to improvement for anyone living with or recovering from depression.

Depression affects a lot of people too. About one in ten people will suffer from an episode of major depression in their lifetime.

There’s a lot of good and easily accessible information already available about depression, from organisations like Black Dog Institute or Beyond Blue. I’ve also written about depression and Christianity (Part 1 and Part 2). I don’t want to try and repeat all of that information here.

Rather, I wanted to say just a couple of things. Firstly, if you’re suffering from ‘joy blindness’ – if you long to experience joy in your life but all you feel is sadness, please don’t blame yourself or beat yourself up. It’s not your fault.

And you’re not alone. The depth of despair is so lonely, so isolating. But there are others out there who have gone what you’re going through and have come out the other side. And there are people around you to help you through – whether they’re friends, family, or professionals who can help, like your GP or a psychologist. Those suffering from depression benefit from specific counselling, or talking therapies, and occasionally those suffering from depression might need medication to assist them in their recovery.

For most people who suffer it, ’joy blindness’ isn’t permanent. It’s more like walking through a long dark tunnel rather than being trapped in a cave. If you can keep moving forward, you will eventually get through the other side. I know it’s hard, because I’ve been there myself. I know that in the middle of the tunnel, it feels like there is no end, that you’ll never experience joy again.

The key is hope. Hope keeps us moving forward. If you can keep moving forward, you will overcome the joy blindness of major depression and you will experience joy again.

Don’t lose hope, and you will experience joy again.

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.

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.

2016: A New Hope

“Hope, it is the quintessential human delusion, simultaneously the source of your greatest strength, and your greatest weakness.” The Architect, Matrix Reloaded

I confess, sometimes I can be a little bit rigid.  And grumpy.

Every New Years Eve, I get a tinsy bit frustrated by the vague aspirations that adorn social media statuses everywhere.  From the self-realisation types …

“Lets make 2016 the best year ever / I’m gonna take 2016 to the next level / Be the love, feel the power, live the life, bask in the light”

through to the typical vague self-improvement ones …

“This year I’m gonna lose weight / stop smoking / be nicer to people / save more / give more / love more / exercise more / eat less …”

It’s all a bit too much for my inner cynic.

My pragmatic cynic dismissed them as pointless. “These aspirations that people post are just pathetic, they won’t benefit anyone.  Goals need to be SMART – Specific, Measurable, Attractive, Realistic and Time-Framed.  Why bother with anything else.”

The activist cynic chimed in, “Honestly, there are so many other more important things … who cares about ‘going to the next level’ when you’re being conned everyday by charlatans and snake-oil salesmen.”

My core cynic was like, “What’s the fuss anyway? The transition into 2016 ‘holds no more meaning that the silent segue from March 14th into March 15th, or the almost imperceptible movement of the minute hand as 2:38pm becomes 2:39pm. If we’re going to celebrate one meaningless moment passing, then shouldn’t we extend the same courtesy to all other moments too? Why does the passage of time matter so much more at the stroke of midnight? I bet 11:58pm feels a bit miffed.’”

I thought about letting my sceptical trinity loose on this post today, but somehow I felt like it wasn’t quite right.  And then I had a small epiphany – each aspiration represents more than vague self-affirmation and cyclical mediocrity.  Together, they represent hope, and who am I to stifle the incredible power of hope.

The power of hope is being realised in secular psychology in recent times.  Hope involves having goals, along with the desire and plan to achieve them.  Dr Shane Lopez, a leading expert on the psychology of hope, describes hope as “the golden mean between euphoria and fear. It is a feeling where transcendence meets reason and caution meets passion.”

Hope leads to everything from better performance in school to more success in the workplace to greater happiness overall.  There may also be a role for teaching hopefulness in the treatment of depression.

So how can we harness the power of hope?  How can we use hope to make 2016 a better year than 2015?  Hopeful people share four core beliefs:
1. The future will be better than the present.
2. I have the power to make it so.
3. There are many paths to my goals.
4. None of them is free of obstacles.

So if we’re going to engage the power of hope, we need to believe that the future is brighter and it’s within our grasp, so long as we keep moving toward it, in spite of the expected obstacles.

Of course, like the Architect noted in the Matrix Reloaded, hope can sometimes be a weakness.  Like Lopez noted, hope needs the right mix of caution and reason, not just passion and transcendence.  If you want to move forward into a better future, you have to keep your feet on the ground.  You need to be aware of those that would take advantage of blind trust.

The conclusion: I’m glad to have my sceptical inner trinity on board, so long as I temper them with a bit more optimism, and maybe an occasional self-affirmation or two.

I hope that 2016 would bring you new hope, along with prosperity and peace.

Happy new year everyone!

Bibliography

http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2013/03/21/the-psychology-of-hope/

http://psychcentral.com/news/2008/08/19/hope-therapy-for-depression/2778.html

http://wonkyperfectionism.blogspot.com.au/2015/01/new-years-vague-sort-of-aspirations.html