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 – Thanks

“Gratitude is one of those rare things you get more of by giving it away” ~ John Kralik

What’s the first thing you do when you get a Christmas present? Do you try and guess what’s inside by tapping it, feeling it, weighing it in your hands or shaking it? Or do you excitedly rip it open without stopping to think?

Usually at some point, either before or after the ceremonial mutilation of wrapping paper, there would be a ‘thank you’ to the person who gave it to you. Saying thank you is second nature to most of us. It’s a social norm, a sign of good manners.

We may say thank you fairly often, but are we practicing gratitude?

As I was randomly trawling the internet one day, I read this: “Have I always been thankful for everything in my life? Of course. But I never practiced gratitude until then.” I hadn’t thought about it quite like that before. The article was about John Kralik, whose story has inspired many in the business world. He was a lawyer in LA who was struggling. It wasn’t that Kralik was impolite and never said thank you, but he decided to make a deliberate effort to practice gratitude, so he made a resolution to send one handwritten thank you card to a different person every day for a year. As all good stories go, this simple act helped to turn around his business and his relationships.

Kralik’s story demonstrates that expressing our thanks is one part of the greater whole of gratitude.

Gratitude is a broad behavioural skill which has a number of different aspects, including:
(1) understanding individual differences in the experience of gratitude
(2) appreciation of others
(3) a focus on what you have
(4) feelings of awe when encountering beauty
(5) behaviours to express gratitude
(6) appreciation rising from understanding that life is short
(7) a focus on the positive in the present moment, and
(8) positive social comparisons

The research suggests that people who are naturally grateful tend to be less angry and hostile, less depressed, less emotionally vulnerable, and experienced positive emotions more frequently. Gratitude also correlates with traits like positive social functioning, emotional warmth, gregariousness, activity seeking, trust, altruism, and tender-mindedness. Grateful people also had higher openness to their feeling, ideas, and values, and greater competence, dutifulness, and achievement striving.

Like mindfulness, these effects may be simply an association of gratitude with other personality traits. In other words, people who are naturally optimistic or conscientious are also more likely to be thankful, rather than the thankfulness causing someone to be more optimistic or conscientious. There are a few studies that show that gratitude interventions improve self-worth, body image, and anxiety, although the evidence is that while gratitude was better than doing nothing, it was equal to, not superior to, currently accepted psychological interventions.

What gratitude does do is open you up to joy by intentionally drawing your focus on to the enriching elements in your life. And, if you express your gratitude to others through things like Thank You cards, then other people will reciprocate! Gratitude is joy gone viral.
It’s easy to start practicing gratitude. You can do what Kralik did and write a thank you note. Of you can do a gratitude journal, which is the best studied gratitude intervention. A gratitude journal simply involves writing something down every day that you’re thankful for. It doesn’t have to be long. A single sentence or phrase is good enough.

It doesn’t even have to be written, if that’s not your thing. I had a friend who was determined to do a gratitude journal, but she also had a love of and a knack for photography. So, she decided to take a photo a day of something that she was grateful for, and then post it on Facebook. She had her moments when she doubted herself, when she struggled to find a subject of her gratitude, or struggled to find something unique (especially after day 300), but the end result was amazing. She grew in her gratitude and her photographic skill, and I often found myself blessed by her beautiful images and insights.

So, grow in gratitude and express it in your own unique way, maybe even spreading the joy of gratitude to those around you.