I’ve been talking a lot about joy recently. Why? Well mainly because when I talk to my clients at the moment what I’m hearing is the absence of joy.
- Life is a slog.
- Filled with hard work.
- I’m so busy.
- I’m so exhausted.
- I am barely holding it together.
- I can’t spend another moment in this house with my husband.
- My kids are driving me nuts.
- Conflict. Fear. Frustration. Irritation. Shame. Anger.
And I get it. Life can be tough.
And as a purpose-led entrepreneur, there are moments when we feel overwhelmed; when the difference we are here to make feels too huge; when the demands on us feel too great and we just want to pull the duvet back over our heads and pretend that our purpose in life is actually to sleep. Not to create change.
There’s a quote by Henri Nouwen that I’ve been thinking about a lot:
Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing joy every day.
There is so much I love about this quote and so much to unpick and learn. Above all, joy is not a passive experience. It is an active choice.
So many of us see joy as something we ‘receive’; something that is caused by external factors. The reality is that we are in control of how much joy we feel and no matter what the circumstances of our lives may be – we all have the power to choose joy and to experience joy in each moment. If it is true – and I believe that it is – that we get more of what we focus on in our lives: then a relentless focus on how hard things are, how difficult and stressful and irritating life can be…will surely just attract more difficulty, stress, and irritation.
If that’s too esoteric for you, let me put it a different way. When you get home at the end of the day – even if that’s just walking from your ‘home office’ to the living room – do you walk in the door and think ‘Wow, how lovely and warm it is here; this rug is so soft under my feet, and that photograph of my beautiful family makes me smile every time I see it.’ OR do you see the mess of this morning’s breakfast dishes in the kitchen and the newspapers scattered across the coffee table and the kids’ shoes piled up willy nilly by the front door and feel irritation and annoyance?
In both cases, you’ve walked into the same house. But in the first example, you focus on the things in your home that bring you joy. And as a result, I imagine, you will have a much more pleasant evening with your family. In the second example, you focus on the things that cause you to be irritated and upset. Can you guess what kind of evening you are going to have as a result?
Is there a part of you that’s saying ‘You can’t choose joy. Joy happens to you.’ or ‘But I don’t have a rug…or a family.’ or ‘Life is just too hard right now to find joy and why DOESN’T someone else wash up the breakfast dishes.’?
I get it.
Let me share a story with you.
I hope it helps.
Bob quite literally had nothing except the clothes on his back. And the biggest smile I have ever seen on a human being. He beamed with joy.
I used to work for UNICEF. I spent time in West Africa – in Ghana – visiting UNICEF’s projects in the huge slums of Accra. I met a young boy there. He said his name was Bob. I’m not convinced that was his name, but let’s go with it! Bob was 12 years old. An orphan. He had been living on the streets and in the slum since he was about 6 or 7. And he was reliant on UNICEF for clothing, food, and the chance of an education. Bob quite literally had nothing except the clothes on his back. And the biggest smile I have ever seen on a human being. He beamed with joy. When I asked him what made him so happy, he said: ‘Why choose to be sad?’ I share this story not to shame you for questioning whether you can choose joy. But to demonstrate that even in the direst of circumstances, joy is possible. It is a choice.
I got to know Bob a little during the time I was in Accra. Here are some of the things he taught me about how to be more joyful.
- Start your day with the clear intention to focus on and choose joy. Instead of racing to start your day and stepping immediately into the hustle-bustle of getting up, getting ready, getting the kids up…or whatever…take a moment to breathe and set the intention to focus on joy.
- Throughout the day watch your meanings. In every moment we create meaning. And that meaning determines not only how we feel about the moment but also how we experience the next moment in our lives. The fact that you dropped your coffee cup this morning could mean that you are a clumsy numpty with poor hand-eye coordination. OR it could mean that you have an excuse to pop into your favourite shop at the weekend and buy a new mug. Both meanings are possible. Which one brings you the most joy?
- It was Darwin who first proposed that facial expressions don’t only reflect emotions, but also cause them. Since then countless researchers have tested this hypothesis and found it to be true. For those of you who like to check out the science, take a look at the work of Robert Zajonc who published one of the most significant studies on the emotional effect of producing a smile back in 1989. In essence, if you want to experience joy, smile.
- Give joy to others. We have all heard the expression that it is better to give than to receive. But the ‘donor’ can get just as much from the gift as the recipient especially when that gift is joy. Take a moment to offer someone a sincere compliment; see their joy and experience the glow of their smile. I guarantee that you will feel more joyful for having brought joy to someone else.
- If you want a short-cut to joy there is one daily practice that carries a guarantee: gratitude. Start your day with a focus on joy and end your day with a focus on gratitude. Take a moment before you go to sleep to consider what you are grateful for. Write a list of at least three things. I have a beautiful notebook next to my bed for this purpose. And sometimes, in the moments when joy feels hard, I take a look at my notebook and remind myself how much I have found to be grateful for in my life. You don’t have to take my word for it though. My s-hero Brene Brown once said: “In 12 years, I’ve never interviewed a single person who would describe their lives as joyful, who would describe themselves as joyous, who was not actively practicing gratitude.”
As Marianne Williamson said, “Joy is what happens to us when we allow ourselves to recognise how good things really are.” So allow yourself a moment of recognition. Revel in the unique joy of being YOU. Of being alive. Choose joy. And remember every day that it is a choice.