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Joy takes practice

Who decides how good you're going to feel today?

We can all feel this joyful whenever we choose. But it takes practice to get it right.
We can all feel this joyful whenever we choose. But it takes practice to get it right.

We all know what joy feels like.

It feels like we’ve been wrapped in a sense of calmness and bliss that’s a world beyond the giddy pleasure of mere happiness. It’s as if we’ve been injected with a potion made from equal parts warm bath, fresh snowfall and puppies that’s now glowing from the inside, out. It’s the ultimate in mindfulness because it holds us fully in that moment in which all is right with the world.

And damn, it feels good!

Then it’s gone.

Most of us only experience joy when the circumstances around us are just right. Everyone is cooperating, the sun is shining, there’s no pandemic and the planets have aligned. But our hold on joy is tenuous. Change the circumstances, let someone say a wrong word or have the rain begin and joy runs down the drain.

Now, we’re all smart enough to know that real joy comes from the inside, out. But knowing it and living it are two different things. Despite the timeless wisdom of Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad and every other great teacher who’s ever walked the earth, the world keeps insisting that joy, happiness and serenity migrate from the outside, in.

Wear these clothes. Drive this car. Travel to this place. Be like these people. Most often, we put the responsibility for our joy in the hands of everyone else and the world around us. If and when that crowd chooses to cooperate, your day’s going to be great. If not, you’re screwed.

Reclaiming responsibility for your own joy takes practice. Just like piano lessons, the more you work at it, the better you get.

How do you practice for joy? It begins with basic brain training.

Most of our thoughts are reactive. In other words, we re-act the same thoughts and the same actions that we’ve adopted as habits. Traffic gets snarled (again) and, without giving any thought to our thoughts, we get snarly right along with it (again). Instead, we need to retrain our minds to think again, to think differently.

For example, you’ve been enjoying your regular Wednesday lunches with that old friend for years. Now the city is in lockdown and the restaurants are closed. Our habitual thought is to be disappointed, upset, even angry. Certainly not joyful. But since disappointment and anger neither feel good nor help the situation we’d be better served with different thoughts and different emotions. This is an opportunity to practice those differences. An opportunity to re-train your mind.

The moment you feel the pivot from delightful anticipation to disappointment and anger, recognize the switch in your thoughts and your feelings. Then decide to take control.

First, accept and honor the current feelings. After all, you are disappointed. But only for a moment. You don’t want to let it ruin your afternoon.

Then decide that you’d rather choose a better feeling thought. You might choose to spend a few moments re-living some of the delightful lunches you’ve shared with your friend in the past. Recall the joyful experience and re-feel the positive emotions you felt at the time. Don’t simply remember the event, allow yourself to go inside and deeply feel the friendship, the delight and the happiness you felt in the moments you were together. Then watch as your mood swings back to the bright side of the dial in response.

We all have deep mental grooves that have been worn in our thought apparatus over the decades of our lives. It’s way too easy to fall back into them without being aware.

It’s vital to begin forming new mental habits. But rather than waiting for a stressful situation, start training your brain with daily practice. When you first wake up, develop the habit of listing five things for which you’re grateful in the coming day. Alternatively, you could list five of your favorite things or five accomplishments of which you’re particularly proud. The point is, begin your day by insisting that your mind focus on things that feel good. That gets it off on the right foot. Repeat the exercise several times throughout the day.

Of course this won’t be easy at first. But neither is playing the piano. Work at it diligently, though, and it will soon be second nature.

Does it serve you to have your mood and mental state in the hands of others? Is it useful to have your emotional strings pulled by the outside world? Are you pleased to be put off your game whenever you’re thrown a curve ball? If not, you can choose to reinvent the way you think. After all, the joy belongs to you. Shouldn’t you be the one who gets to control it?

When you grant other people and outside conditions the power to annoy you whenever they want, you give up the ability to experience joy whenever you want.

You don’t need a reason or excuse to be joyful. Nor do you have to justify your joy to anyone else. You can choose to experience it any time you’d like simply because it feels good. You also don’t need to wait around, hoping for the right circumstances that will allow you to feel that emotional high.

It will take practice to overcome this habit of re-acting in tired old ways to outside events, people and circumstances. But slowly, then more quickly, you’ll get better and better at it. Eventually, you’ll be completely in charge of your own joy, which you can then call up whenever it pleases you.

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