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.

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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 – Simplicity

Over the last couple of days, we talked about joy through balance, balance of our stress levels and balance of our time commitments.

There is another aspect of balance and joy – the balance in our physical life, the joy inherent to a life of simplicity.

In our modern western society, we grow up with a couple of implicit assumptions – rich people are happy, and poor people are not happy. Sort of capitalism’s golden rule. But are those assumptions true?

In the late 1970’s, Philip Brickman and his colleagues published a study in which they suggested that people who had won the lottery were no happier than a similarly matched control group who had not won any money.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the idea that joy can be attained from a simple life is as old as the ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus, who history records, sought a tranquil life – “a state of satiation and tranquility that was free of the fear of death and the retribution of the gods. When we do not suffer pain, we are no longer in need of pleasure, and we enter a state of ‘perfect mental peace’.” He spent his time in a garden and taught his school of philosophy there. He was content to eat simple meals, and aspired to a neutral mood.

So if joy can be found in the simple life, and is not necessarily guaranteed through material wealth, why do we have have expensive houses filled with expensive cars, whole wardrobes of designer clothes we hardly wear, subscribing to 200 channels on massive wide-screen TV’s that we don’t have time to watch because we’re on social media on our expensive smart phones, complaining about the unrepayable personal debt that we have.

This post is certainly not a diatribe against all material things or debt necessarily. I love my iPhone X, my Apple Watch, my iPad pro etc etc. I don’t need them all, but I like them. It would be hypocritical to push an anti-consumerism line while being stocked up with nearly every Apple product I can fit on my person.

The key is balance. Embracing a level of minimalism doesn’t guarantee happiness, but trimming some of the unnecessary trappings of materialism can make room for those things that count more in terms of joy.

Embracing a level of minimalism is a means to an end. It frees up some of our most finite resources like time, money, energy, and helps to remove stress. It frees up all of these resources that you can now start investing in what brings you purpose.

Finding joy through minimalism is an expression of living through your values, which we discussed in an earlier post. It’s much easier to say no to things that have no significant value when we understand what is that is of significant value.

One we know what is truly important to us, we can start clearing our lives of all the things that clutter our lives, the material possessions that suck up our time and unbalance our quest for joy.

Writing about minimalism at a time like Christmas, one of the biggest shopping seasons of the year, is always a little ironic. That said, I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t be buying presents for others, and that we should abandon Christmas shopping altogether. Though we can use the opportunity to declutter a little by giving in other ways.

Perhaps all of those clothes you aren’t wearing can be given to your local church or charity to pass on to those whose wardrobe is sparse. Perhaps you can have a garage sale to thin out the junkyard of unused appliances in your house, and donate the proceeds to feed those who are hungry.

That is the generosity of Christmas at its best and has the added bonus of decluttering your life – a double whammy of joy at Christmas.

The lost art of joy – Striking the right chord

In yesterday’s post, we talked about the joy thief of excessive stress, and about finding the right balance to optimise our emotional homeostasis.

Many people assume that if excessive stress leads to no joy, then having a life of no stress would be the opposite and lead to a life of untold happiness. Except, it doesn’t. No stress may feel great in the short term, but a life of absolutely no stress is a different form of malaise, leading to emotional weakness, something which is just as joy-sapping as excessive emotional strain.

As I said yesterday, it’s all about balance.

So how do you know where the optimum is between not enough and too much? The answer to that lies in the humble guitar string.

I really don’t know a lot about guitars, but I do know that when you first put a new string on the guitar, it’s unstretched – there’s no strain on it at all. If all you did was tied the two ends of the string to the tone peg and the tuning peg, the string would remain limp and lifeless. It wouldn’t be able to do anything useful. It certainly wouldn’t play a note. When the tuning peg is twisted a few times, there is some tightness in the wire. The string is now under tension (i.e. stress). It’s now able to play a note of some form, so it can do some work and fulfil some of the function of a guitar string, though the note’s out of tune.

With a small adjustment, the string reaches its optimal tension and can play the correct note! This is the point where the string is fulfilling its designed purpose. Optimal stress equals optimal function.

With further tightening of the string, the perfect pitch is lost, but the string can still produce a sound of some form. With more tension, the string can still make a noise, but it’s off-pitch, and on a microscopic level, the fibres inside the cord are starting to tear. If the string were wound further and further, it would eventually break.

If this ratio of the tension of the string versus the usefulness of the string were to be plotted as a graph, it would look like an upside down “U”. This is the classic stress/productivity curve.

Each of us has our own particular point where we are in tune. When we know where our sweet spot is, we can operate within it, achieving our best in life without doing ourselves harm. This is the first point that we need to identify on our own personal stress/productivity curve. This is the point of maximum productivity.

We also need to understand that a bit more stress is ok. It’s inevitable that we are going to be stressed beyond what we usually cope with at times. Without that challenge, there would be no growth. Challenges usually hurt. You can’t have growth without pain. Our muscles adapt and grow when they are pushed just beyond their optimal load. The key is learning how far we can push ourselves before we start to falter and fail. This is the second point we need to discover on our personal stress/productivity curve. This is the point of maximum growth.

We understand where these points are on our own personal stress-productivity curve when we listen to our inner selves and learn from our mistakes. Once we have found our own note, we can sense when our bodies and minds are starting to stray outside of our optimum performance, to listen when we’re not quite in tune. Joy is much more likely to thrive if we are playing our own notes in tune, striking the right chord.

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.

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.