Joy is a verb
Joy is a verb. Yes, I know that technically it’s a noun, but that is deeply misleading. Had it joined the English language as a verb, we would all be much happier. Joy is not something you get, or achieve, or that’s dropped in your lap, or that appears on your shoulder like a bluebird. It is a choice you make, moment to moment. It is an action you take, and learning to develop your happiness skills is critical to your health — and to the world.
There are two ways you can live your life (vis a vis this particular topic). Here’s the first: You can look for the things that are going wrong and dwell on negativity. We are highly programmed as a culture to do exactly that; most people in Western societies are intensely focused on all the things that are missing or bad in their lives. In psychology, it’s called “sorting for the negative.” You are sorting or categorizing the world based on what you need to do or get – in other words, what you don’t have or haven’t achieved. Not only is it programmed into us, but we are bombarded constantly with messages telling us about all the things we are missing. They are called ads, and they are constantly reminding you to be unhappy, letting you know that you will never be happy until you buy whatever it is they are selling. Well, newsflash: ads are LIES. Their job is to make you so miserable that you will get up out of your house and spend your hard-earned money on their tacos, or shoes, or university degrees in the hopes of getting happiness.
Here’s the other option. You can focus on those things that bring you joy in any circumstance. No matter what is happening in your life, there are always things to be grateful for, to appreciate, and to wonder at. (You’re not dead, for starters – great news! Anyone around who you love? Notice some flowers? Able to take a deep breath? It doesn’t take much to generate a spark of delight, awe, or curiosity if you focus on it.) Directing your mind toward those things frequently can bring you a deep sense of peace and fulfillment, regardless of whatever challenges you are facing. But it takes some time, dedication, and practice to retrain your mind to “sort” by the things that make you feel happy and glad to be alive. Those efforts you make will snowball over time. If you can make it a habit, you might find that happiness can even become your default state. Not happiness as in having a goofy grin on your face all the time, but happiness as an underlying sense of wellbeing. You also might find that you become more effective at dealing with and managing chaos and drama from this perspective of peacefulness.
Am I suggesting you become a “Pollyanna” and ignore anything that is going wrong? Of course not. Take care of things, deal with the things that aren’t going well, but don’t dwell on them. Don’t let them run your life. Find the space to center yourself in something happy or fun before you face the un-fun tasks you have to do. Sometimes, that can even turn the un-fun into something at least slightly more pleasant. Direct yourself to focus on possible solutions instead of reasons why things suck. It’s way too easy to get “broken-record brain” and rehash whatever is making you feel anxious or upset. Nudge your mind to something else when that happens.
Happiness does require letting go of the impossible standards our insane culture has set for us. If you will only be happy once you look like Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt, and have their wealth — well, good-bye happiness. You need to set new standards that support your joyfulness instead of our greed and fame-based consumer culture. Set a standard for hammock and daydreaming time instead of working yourself to exhaustion in the name of being “productive.” Work toward having wonderful friends instead of multiple cars. Look for activities that feel good instead of activities that earn more money or provide greater prestige. In general, you will be happier if you serve your soul instead of your image.
At the end of your life, you likely won’t look back and think, “I wish I worked harder and bought more stuff.” A much more likely wish is, “I wish I had spent more time just being happy.”
Joy is a verb. It’s something that you have to do. Things will never be perfect, and they don’t have to be for you to be joyful. Happiness does not require any particular conditions to flourish. You just have to pay attention to generating joyful feelings with whatever is available. Fortunately, it is a skill that can be practiced and learned. It’s not easy, especially in our Western culture, where misery is often equated with martyrdom. Strike out on your own, rather than following our cultural models of misery that tell us unhappiness is our default setting. That doesn’t have to be true. It’s easy to justify your misery and feel like a victim of circumstance, but it feels awfully good to leave victimhood behind and become your own master of happiness.
Happiness is the seed of health
Which brings me to the title of this article: health and happiness; the chicken or the egg. As with the chicken and the egg, it’s a little hard to know which comes first, but they are two sides of the same coin. Health is much more difficult to come by without happiness. Your thoughts nourish your body just as much as food; you can feed your body negative crap, or you can feed your body wellbeing and strength. Obviously, this never guarantees perfect, shining health, but it can help you get to a kind of wellbeing and balance where your body is able to deal with assaults and better heal from illness.
It is very difficult to maintain health when you are miserable. You don’t sleep well or take care of yourself. Everything hurts. Often, feeding one’s body negative emotions is accompanied by feeding one’s body shitty food. An unhappy emotional state creates chemicals like cortisol (stress hormone) that eat away at your immune system, your youth, and your wellbeing.
Practice joy, and you will start taking better care of your body. Practice joy, and you will start producing less cortisol. Practice joy, and you may find that you want to eat better or exercise because it feels good. Practice joy, and you will sleep better. Practice joy, and you will look (and feel) younger. Practice joy, and you will start feeling better. Breed happiness, and you are birthing the egg of your health.
Another short diversion: I am in no way blaming people for their own illnesses or injuries. Our health is largely beyond our conscious control. But we can support our health or we can detract from it. We can bring our physical systems into harmony or set them in discord. It’s like the difference between living in a clean, beautiful, well-cared-for home versus a toxic waste dump of a house.
Choose joy and save the world
Which brings me to the second title of this article: Get Happy To Save the World. The incredible thing about choosing joy is that it extends beyond yourself. Joy and happiness are contagious. And particularly in our culture, people need role models of happiness. They need to see that it’s possible. We all have a desire to help people, and one of the most helpful things we can do is guide people toward happiness. I think few people know, or believe, that it’s possible to be deeply happy without fame and fortune. They need to see it.
Our society is sick, largely because the individuals in it are miserable. Which one came first to create these conditions is arguable, but I know which one will have to come first to really rectify the situation. We cannot build a healthy society until we have found the ability to live in happiness and joy. That happiness will then reflect into the outside world and the structures we create. This is bound to be an excruciatingly slow process, but don’t lose heart!
Imagine a world in which people are deeply happy and fulfilled. Imagine all the dreadful things happiness could cure: addictions, the need for status, compulsive shopping, advertising, racism, celebrity worship, police brutality, war — the list is endless. Clearly, we are a long way away from that, but keep the faith and do your part to save the world by being happy.
Bonus section: 5 attitudes essential to the happiness and health of individuals and society
Our culture is based on a few underlying assumptions. These are the things we all take for granted and don’t really think about but that color our entire worldview. They also contribute subconsciously to our unhappiness. For instance, the concept of the survival of the fittest — competition and hierarchy — is one upon which our society is structured. But it isn’t an innate truth, regardless of what Darwin says. There are plenty of examples in nature of cooperation winning out over competition. Materialism is another subconscious program we run – the idea that everything can be broken down into its constituent parts to be better understood. Our entire science and medical systems hinge on that one. But that’s not necessarily true either — sometimes a thing must be understood holistically — grokked — rather than divided into meaningless sub-parts. Think about an alien trying to understand a chicken — it doesn’t matter how much they learn about cells, beaks, talons, DNA, white meat, and gizzards; they won’t be able to understand what a chicken is unless they see one. Yet we try to pull everything apart in our efforts to understand the universe. Here’s another assumption: only things that are physical are real — the “I’ll believe it when I see it” fallacy. Well, given that the range of the electromagnetic field that we can see — and hear and otherwise measure — is about the same proportion as a grain of sand to the planet Jupiter, that statement is absurd.
So, there’s a little reprogramming that has to happen to help our happiness along. Below I list five sub-programs or underlying assumptions that are really important to true happiness. For an individual, these will help — for a society, they are critical.
We don’t know what we don’t know. We’ve gotten a bit big for our breeches with our fancy technology, but when it comes down to it, we don’t know what we don’t know. A little humility never hurts, and without it, we’re not very good at learning new things. There is plenty out there in the great big universe that we just don’t understand, and the first step to greater understanding is recognizing that what we know is a drop in the ocean, or a grain of sand on Jupiter. And, you’ll be a lot happier if you remember in every situation that there may be circumstances beyond your awareness.
We are all connected. We all live on the same planet, share the same air, the same molecules even. We all impact one another. It may seem like a huge planet where what you do or say will not have much effect in – say, Malaysia – but remember six degrees of separation (Kevin Bacon?). The theory goes (and studies have supported!) that every human being is only separated from every other human being by no more than six degrees of separation. So in only six steps, you could potentially reach every other human being. Multiply that by social media.
Several studies demonstrate that stress is literally, physically contagious; how you feel affects others, and vice versa:
On multiple levels, we are all connected, and what one person feels or does radiates out to affect others. If we all were a bit more aware of what we were sending out and what effects it was having, we might be a little more conscientious.
We create our reality. Not just in a mysterious, ineffable way, but in a very practical, down-to-earth way too. Everything we build, make, or create starts out in our imaginations. We make the world the way we think about it. You make your life the way you think about it.
This doesn’t mean that you can just imagine a new Lamborghini in your driveway and poof! there it is, like in The Secret. It’s not a magic spell to create anything you want. It does mean that what you focus on tends to manifest itself more around you. Naturally, if you focus your efforts and attention on becoming a great painter, you are much more likely to experience that outcome than if you focus instead on playing tennis. If you focus on things that make you angry, you might start coming up with more and more things that make you angry. We gravitate toward what we are familiar with, so start familiarizing yourself with things that make you happy. You might find that if you spend a lot of time thinking about things that make you happy, you will start creating a lifestyle that draws those things to you.
Life is a miracle. This is not a religious statement. Anyone who understands the complexities of biological life and the insanely complex conditions necessary for it to flourish cannot help but be astonished by the mere fact of its existence. When you do something as simple as raise your arm, the process of sending signals from your brain and coordinating cell movement – well, look it up and tell me if you are not mind-boggled. And that’s nothing compared to dancing or driving a car. Or evolving eyeballs. Life is un-fucking-believable, no matter how you look at or where you believe it came from. Cherish it, wonder at it.
We have free will and are responsible for our choices. This is probably an unprovable statement, but it is essential to happiness and health for both an individual and a society. To negate it is to absolve oneself of any responsibility for any actions. To negate it is to become a victim, helpless against the tide of fate. To negate it rids life of any purpose or meaning.
Now, you still get to believe in destiny, God’s will, synchronicity, higher guidance, multi-dimensional reality – all of those can still be on the table as long as ultimately, you have fundamental free will.
Bonus to the bonus section: Honoring free will
I said there were five main assumptions that an individual or society needs to make to generate happiness, but there is one more very important bit. If we all have free will, we all want to exercise our free will, freely. It’s a pretty basic human drive, freedom. We’d all pretty much like to do our thing. Now, there are times when freedom has to be curtailed a little bit, to ensure we aren’t hurting one another in the name of “freedom,” but that’s the exception, not the rule. “Live and let live, that’s my motto,” says Dale Arden in my favorite movie of all time, 1980’s Flash Gordon. I took that to heart, and I think we all should. If you want freedom for yourself, let everyone enjoy the same gift. Unless you absolutely need to demonstrate your power over someone to prevent harm, let it go. Those who covet power are those who feel most powerless, so do your part to stop the cycle now.