The lost art of joy – Adversity

If we were to believe the average Pinterest quote, it’s easy to be happy.

“Positive mind, Positive Vibes, Positive Life”.
“I choose to be happy”.
“Why be moody when you can shake yo booty”.

Yep, easy right. Positively choose to turn on the light and shake yo booty, and you will have joy.

But we know from life experience that it isn’t always easy to have joy. It’s easy when times are good, when things are going in your favour.

It’s not so easy when things are difficult or times are tough – when you’re sick, when you’re broke, when you’re alone, when you’re stressed and stretched to your limit.

We all encounter adversity at some in our lives, and it’s through those times of personal difficulty that we usually grow the most, although it never feels like that at the time.

When times are difficult, we can still experience joy. Occasionally Pinterest has some pertinent quotes – “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times if one only remembers to turn on the light”. It might be hard to see the joy in times of darkness and difficulty, and sometimes we just need to shine a little bit of light into the situation to see some of the joy around us.

One of the most profound examples of this was that of Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who survived three years in Nazi concentration camps. He lived through some of the most inhumane depravity that a human being could be forced to endure, and that experience helped him understand that circumstances did not necessarily determine someone’s experience of joy, but that even in the midst of suffering, a person could still find beauty and meaning.

In “Man’s search for meaning”, he wrote:

We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”

That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which Man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of Man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when Man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position Man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”

Even in the midst of hostility, hate and hardship, Frankl and those around him engaged in unity, comradery, understanding of beauty and the memory of love. The human spirit can not be suppressed by external conditions. As Frankl also wrote,

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Modern psychology has helped to explain what it is that contributes to happiness and joy. Sonja Lyubomirsky and her colleagues once published that intentional actions can contribute as much as 40% to a person’s feeling of happiness, where as circumstances could only contribute 10%.

This work wasn’t without it’s criticism, but it does make two pertinent points.

The first thing and most important for today is that our happiness is less about what’s going on around us and more about what we do.

Yes, adversity does make joy more difficult to experience, but not impossible.

Don’t allow life to beat you down. See the joy that is beyond your circumstances.

The second point? Even accounting for their generous assumptions, if up to 40% of our happiness is related to our actions, then more of our happiness is dependent on things beyond our control, like our genes and our circumstances.

What happens when you’ve done everything you can to maximise your joy and you’re still struggling? We will discuss this in more detail tomorrow.

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The lost art of joy – Values

“Wait … what are you doing?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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