The lost art of joy – The freedom of now

How do drive your car?

We all have our own particular styles – cautious, sedate, zippy, or kamikazi. There are some drivers that drive like a tortoise on tranquillisers. I always seem to get stuck behind them at traffic lights. I would describe my driving style as ‘confident’, though when I quickly nip around them at the lights, I’m sure they would think I’m in too much of a hurry.

Whether we’re on a perpetual Sunday drive or we go like a bat out of hell, there are some commonalities to how we all drive. No one drives the whole journey looking in the rearview mirror and no one crawls along in first gear all the way just in case there might be a red light or a stop sign up ahead. When we’re in control of our car, we drive according to the conditions around us at the time.

In the first two posts of this series, we looked at acceptance and values, or as the Serenity Prayer says, “give me 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.” Acceptance and values intersect in the present moment, the ‘now’.

We can’t change what has happened in the past, and we can’t control what is going to happen in our future. We can advance in the direction set by our values and embrace the freedom of living in the now.

Living in the now is just like driving. There’s no point looking in the rearview mirror the whole way. We can’t change the past. Getting lost in the if-only’s of the past means we don’t get to experience what is going on around us, and it effectively stops us moving forward because we’re looking the wrong way. We become stagnant and the lack of lack of forward progress makes it hard for joy to flourish. Neither can we control the future. Sometimes we allow the what-if’s of the inherently uncertain future to slow our progress and hold us back. We don’t know what’s around the bend, and after a while we prefer the familiarity of our rut.

When we move beyond the past and leave the future to our destiny, we can focus on the richness of the present moment. Living in the present moment is both liberating and invigorating – we are no longer being held captive by what has been or what might be, and we can allow our attention to absorb all of the plentiful and pleasing details that are going on all around us, every moment of our lives.

Living in the now is part of the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is a skill, and like every other skill, it takes some practice to get good at it. But the practice is worth it, as mindfulness is associated with higher levels of life satisfaction, agreeableness, conscientiousness, vitality, self esteem, empathy, sense of autonomy, competence, optimism, and pleasant affect.

There are many ways to practice mindfulness, but if you’re a novice, then a good place to start is through some apps like Smiling Mind or Headspace.  As you get better at living in the present moment, you will start to enjoy the richness and freedom that comes with it. If you start now, you won’t have to live haunted by the ghosts of Christmas-Past or Christmas-Future, but can have a marry and a mindful Christmas, living in the freedom of now.

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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.

The lost art of joy – Acceptance

“’Tis the season to be jolly”

The auditory froth of tinny Christmas melody bubbled away in the background as I was trying to enjoy my sushi. I usually filter the incessant stream of Christmas carols from my consciousness as these days, they have become ever-increasingly cliche.

But once upon a time, Christmas carols were more than just shopping centre noise pollution. Once upon a time, Christmas carols had meaning. Even if you’re not inclined to celebrate the birth of the Saviour, there are still some Christmas themes we can all agree on, like peace on Earth, goodwill to all (women and) men, and joy to the world.

Joy. Christmas’s modern irony. In amongst the glitter and tinsel lies a season of despair for many people as the over-commercialised happiness hype and expectations of cheer amplify the sense of loneliness and pain that slowly abrades them. Then there’s the Yuletide exhaustion, the inevitable outcome of the frenetic push to shop, wrap, clean, decorate, travel to or host party after party after party – celebraters gonna celebrate! Joy is supposed to fit in your schedule or to-do list somewhere.

’Tis the season to be jolly? Yes, it is, but sometimes we work so hard to be joyful that joy itself has been lost along the way.

This year, with one thing or another, my writing has taken a bit of a backseat. I’m going to try and change that. I’m going to set myself a challenge to write one post a day for December celebrating the lost art of joy. What it’s going to look like is still anyone’s guess, with form and inspiration to be free and flowing. I’m not promising an exhaustive exposition … more a free-form exploration. Neither am I suggesting that I am an expert in such matters. I’m preaching to myself as much as anything. As someone who still battles depression, joy is often elusive to me.

Still, please come along for the ride. Together, let’s explore the many facets of one of the deepest of all emotions and how it’s an integral part of the Christmas season, and also our collective soul.

Many moons ago, I was a cub scout (which for those who don’t know, is Scouts for 8-10 year old boys). Once a week, we would get together and do outdoorsy type activities and games as part of learning about the seemingly antithetical values of teamwork and self-reliance, earning merit badges, dibbing and dobbing and all things scout.

One time I remember they divided the group into two and had us battle it out in a tug-o-war dual. Our parade area-come-battle zone was not particularly well lit, with the area just behind the scout hall in complete shadow, save for the occasional moonlight.

It was a gripping contest and during the battle, the other team managed to swing themselves around and pull their end of the rope into the inky darkness beside the scout hall. Our side doubled our effort, but despite what felt like an eternity of vigorous straining, we weren’t moving anywhere. We understood why when the other team started peeling away one by one and laughing at us – in the cover of darkness, they had managed to tie the tug-o-war rope to one of the poles supporting the balcony of the scout hall. We were struggling when we were fighting against human opposition, but we were clearly no chance at ever beating the scout hall in tug-o-war.

What do my #cubscoutfails have to do with joy? The scout hall tug-o-war episode is a good analogy for acceptance.

The self-help industry has, at one point or another, made us all want to better ourselves … which is fine, but only if what we wanted to change was actually changeable. By trying to change some part of us that is difficult to the point of being insurmountable, we expend huge amounts of energy to get nowhere. And it changes nothing, except for diminished motivation, volition and resistance to the thing we wanted to change in the first place. How many diets have ended in a flurry of ice-cream or Mars bars? We figuratively try to beat the scout hall in tug-o-war. The futile fighting with things that can not be changed makes it hard for joy to flourish.

The Serenity Prayer, made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs, is simple but profound. It starts by saying, “God, give me 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.”

Accepting those things that can not be changed is life-changing! The frustration of constant failure destroys the soul and steals away any joy. It we want to protect our joy, we can start by accepting that there are things in life we can’t change. In the immortal words of that other modern ear worm – “let it go”. Don’t sweat and strain, heaving and pulling on something that can’t be moved.

Of course, acceptance isn’t the whole story, but the other aspects of the serenity prayer (wisdom and courage) might be topics for another day.

Suffice to say, picking our battles can make a profound difference to our life, and acceptance is the key to that.

Thanks for reading, and I hope we can talk more tomorrow.