Chasing Joy

‘Blue Monday’ came and went earlier this week.   The term dates back to 2005 when Dr. Cliff Arnall, a South Wales lecturer, called out the third Monday of January as the worst day of the year.  His reasoning?  The realisation that the holidays are well and truly over, the apparent debt hangover from holiday spend, and the fact that most people have broken New Year’s Resolutions by this point.  The rain pissing down in London on the day wouldn’t have helped.  So far, so depressing. 

 

All of this heaviness made me think of something I often suggest to clients:  The benefits of  ‘chasing joy.’  So often, people assume the sole focus of therapy is ‘fixing things’ that aren’t working.   Concentrating on negative emotions and processing these to affect healing and change.  While there is certainly an element of truth to this (no one said therapy was all fun and games), I like to point out that we need to look at the other side of the coin as well:  What brings incremental happiness.  Specifically, what do we like doing for no other sake than pure enjoyment?  To be clear, this is something that may energise or relax us, or just make us feel more connected in our relationships or environment.  But the crucial caveat is the activity is only for cultivating joy, not as part of some ‘self improvement’ crusade, or because we feel like we ‘should’ be adding a new layer of x-y-z to our lives. 

 

For some clients, it works best to have a weekly ‘date’ to pursue such activities.  Others prefer to have a few minutes or half-hour every day.  Whatever you can fit in is a start.  Because the more our focus and attention is on finding joy, the more we somewhat unsurprisingly start to see it show up in our lives. 

 

For me, I realised over the holidays that I very rarely read fiction any more.  Anyone who knows me knows I am a voracious reader, and I do love keeping up on all the science and research surrounding mental health.  I have a towering pile of what I affectionately call my ‘psych porn’ on my desk and another next to my bed.  I love the stuff.  And yet, this type of reading always has a little bit of an agenda in the back of my mind – how I may incorporate the new thinking into my work.  It is never for pure fun and relaxation.  So I picked up a novel on the plane home for Christmas.  And loved lazing with it either in the jet-lagged wee hours of the morning or during an afternoon snooze on the sofa.  And then I moved on to another…and now another.  A well crafted sentence, a quirky-but-lovable character, an author’s attention to subtle detail….these things make me, well, happy.  They bring me joy.  That’s me.   Others have shared with me joyful pastimes as diverse as drawing or painting; cooking or crocheting; gardening or cold water swimming (Seriously?!  Apparently so…).   It doesn’t matter what the activity is, merely how it makes you feel.  Joyful, hopefully.  

Give yourself the gift of time, sit back and enjoy.

Resolutions and the Paradox of Change

After the early years of 'growing up' during which we carefully plan our education, career and family aspirations, most of us don't stop to think about our values and goals in the same serious and structured way later on. The exception, of course, is the short period around when the calendar changes from one year to the next and we come up with our list of resolutions for the year ahead. But I'd argue this type of life planning can't be reduced to an early January fleeting concern; it's a 365-days-a-year one. Spending a mere week or so mulling over things we think we 'should' do (but may not necessarily want to do) then mustering up all the willpower we can manage and hoping for the best may explain why the failure rate for New Year's resolutions is so high, reportedly 80-90%.

 

Don't get me wrong, I whole-heartedly believe in the value of making intentions then putting actions in place to achieve these goals (I'd be in the wrong profession if I didn't).  But sometimes the endless treadmill of ‘self-improvement’ is really self-flagellation in not-so-subtle disguise; a critical voice that keeps saying you aren’t successful enough, attractive enough, kind enough, fill-in-the-blank-enough.

 

This critical stance erroneously has us clinging to a habit of ‘if only’ thinking:  if only I got that promotion, or lost those last five pounds, or was in a relationship or had a bigger flat…then I’d be happy.  We set our New Year’s resolutions accordingly, hitching our wagon of future happiness to the attainment of these goals.  The problem with this is it means we’re starting from a place of ‘not okay’ as it is.  Think about that for a moment.  If our starting point is ‘I’m not okay,’ that’s a hugely demoralising place, and frankly one that isn’t true.  We fill up our minds with ‘I have to work harder, must go to the gym more, need to start meditating or dating or whatever it is…’  Shoulds, musts, needs.  It all sounds like impossibly hard work; standards imposed by the outside world as ways we need to improve ourselves.  It can be overwhelming and exhausting.  High time for a different approach.

 

Often, when I suggest the above to clients, I get push-back.  There is great fear that if they are not hard on themselves, all will go to hell in a handbasket.  Not only won’t they make desired changes, they will actually regress.  I have a lot of time and understanding for these fears, especially as we've been so conditioned to think this way.  Equally, I like to point out that the critical approach has been in place for the person for years (often decades) and there is still an inability to make desired changes.  So why not ‘risk’ another approach?  As in ‘the one you are currently using definitely won’t work (based on history) whereas the one I’m suggesting only might not work and it very well may work if you believe the research.’  Risking success, if you follow me…

 

‘The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.'  Carl Rogers

 

I’m with the late American psychologist Rogers on this.  One of Rogers’ biggest contributions to the field was the assertion that for people to really grow and change they needed a supportive environment consisting of genuineness, acceptance and empathy.   Switching from a critical (shaming) backdrop to one that is more nurturing.  When we apply this to self-regard, we can think of it as moving away from a ‘critical parent’ stance towards ‘nurturing parent,’ the one that loves us unconditionally and just wants the best for us.  Where the starting point is one of acceptance for ourselves – and even gratitude for the many things going right in our lives -  but where we acknowledge that there are things we want to do to increase our general happiness and wellbeing.  Less self-improvement, more self-care.

 

While Rogers’ work dates back to the 1950’s, there is an increasing body of scientific evidence that suggests nurturing positive emotions such as gratitude, compassion and pride (as opposed to arrogance) are instrumental to wellbeing.   As Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University David DeSteno’s research concludes, ‘what these findings show is that pride, gratitude and compassion…push us not only to cooperate with other people but also to help our own future selves.  Feeling pride or compassion has been shown to increase perseverance on difficult tasks by over 30 percent.  Likewise, gratitude and compassion have been tied to better academic performance, a greater willingness to exercise and eat healthily, and lower levels of consumerism, impulsivity and tobacco and alcohol use.’   Simply put, cultivating these positive emotions – gratitude, compassion and (appropriate) pride – are our best hope in getting our New Year intentions to stick.  Happy 2018, all!

If you are looking for help making the mindset shift that will best support growth and change, join us at W11 Wellbeing for our Taming Your Inner Critic workshop 24th February, or get in touch with Kelly@w11coaching for 1:1 coaching. 

 

 

 

 

 

Time for a Time Out

'Beware the barrenness of a busy life.' – Socrates

I’ve been thinking about this quote a lot lately.  Maybe because it pertains to so much of the client work I’m engaged in.  Most of my clients are highly functioning individuals.  They are rightly proud of the accomplishments on their CVs, speak of close family and friends and multiple outside interests.  And yet there are general themes of either burnout or meaninglessness.  Of going through the motions.  Of getting to the end of the week/month/year and wondering “What in the heck just happened here?”  Of feeling like all of the various interactions and events are passing in rapid succession rather than being experienced and enjoyed.  This is what Socrates cautioned against. 

'At ever turn, we need to stop the noise, our own and everyone else's, not to retreat from the world but to live more fully in it.' - Poet and author Mark Nepo

One important step is just to stop every now and again.  A busy life is orchestrated by a busy mind. Our brains are hard-wired to be forward-looking, and this power of prospection serves many good purposes. But it can keep us feeling like we are on a treadmill, ever in transit to an elusive destination.  We need to step off it on occasion. 

Mindfulness is an over-used buzzword these days but really it just means paying attention to what is happening in the present.  In fact, the word mindfulness is somewhat of a misnomer as it isn’t about engaging the mind at all; rather it is about stepping out of incessant thinking and planning.  When we’re living in the future, we’re missing what is happening in the moment. And the next moment. And the next. Left unchecked, these passing collective moments can lead a person to feel pretty detached from his own life. So mindfulness is about taking our hands (and minds) off the controls, of becoming a curious observer sitting in the passenger seat.  Taking in – via all the senses and bodily sensations – what is happening right now.  Not tonight.  Not tomorrow.  Not next week, or next year.  In this way, we cultivate self-awareness.  From awareness comes an understanding of what’s important.  And from this understanding comes a clearer path for meaningful action.  A reasonable antidote to barrenness it would seem.

There are many ways to cultivate this 'quiet,' but for people new to this way of being, it is often helpful to have some type of guided practice.  The well-known Headspace meditation app is a great one for beginners and experienced practitioners alike.  It is my 'go to' recommendation because the approach is so accessible, rooted in science and lacking jargon.  

In my next blog, I'll turn to a more self-guided practice:  'the morning ritual.'