What If Joy Was a Choice?
Updated: Sep 2
Do you believe in Work-Life balance? What does it even mean? When I think about balance, I visualize an old fashion balance scale, the one used as symbol for justice. Work on one side, life on the other, and they’re supposed to balance, right? Does it mean work captures half of our days and during the other half we live? Is there a certain sequence in which work and life should happen? Are napping, exercising, and eating included in the work bucket or in the life bucket? Or in both? I always get a bit confused when I get to this part.
Or maybe it's because I don’t believe in Work-Life balance. I don’t believe there’s work and then there’s life. Work is a part of life and life encompasses work and it’s ok if sometimes they don’t balance. What matters is that we feel healthy, energized and happy. This obsession with balance is adding up to the existing stress and pressure in our lives. Or like Dilbert, would put it:
Rather than taking this narrow approach, we should ask ourselves what are our true priorities in life and where are we heading to? What is it important for us, besides work? Remember when Alice in Wonderland arrives at a fork in the road and asks the Cheshire cat “Which road do I take?” The cat asks her “Where do you want to go?” “I don’t know”, Alice replies. “Then it doesn’t matter” replies the cat. If you don’t know where you go, all the balance in the world will only keep you in the exact same place where you are now.
I’ve always been hard-working and busy as a bee, constantly pushing myself to learn, to grow, to do more. Last Christmas, David got me a book called “How to do nothing”. It bored me to death and I could not finish it. Sitting in a garden and watching the birds jumping in the tree is not my cup of tea. I need to also bake two cakes, organize the kitchen drawers, build a Lego set, write two pages and read an article while I listen to the birds sing… It's not that I am proud of it. I have spent many hours thinking about this balance between doing and being. How do you continue to grow and challenge yourself out of your comfort zone, while still taking care of your health, well-being and enjoying life? So, during our family road trip to Norway this month, I had enough time to reflect. I also had two books with me, two opposite perspectives, but both resonating deeply with my paradox of balance, still so difficult to comprehend.
On one hand I had David Goggins, this modern Achilles who didn’t need a Trojan war because he had already started a war with himself. He is a retired Navy SEAL and the only member of the U.S. Armed Forces ever to complete SEAL training, U.S. Army Ranger School and Air Force training. He ran dozens of ultra-marathons, triathlons, and broke world records, while inspiring millions to get out their cozy comfort zones. In Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds, Goggins shares the story of his life, the obstacles he overcame and the struggles and pain he suffered, to prove to himself and to the world that anyone can become better every day, with discipline and hard work. Push yourself beyond the 40% standard operating mode, develop a calloused mind and body, work on your weaknesses, overcome your fears, find your purpose, cut the bullshit and stop wasting time on social media, always know why you are where you are, and visualize your success. This one phrase I wrote down, captures quite well the essence of Goggins’ belief:
"He’d gained the kind of self-knowledge that can only come from being broken down to nothing and finding some more."
I really enjoyed this book and I have a huge respect and admiration for this super-man. We have to be careful and still put him in the context of the military, where discipline and hard effort are taken to the extreme. It doesn't mean that we can or should start sacrificing everything in life to break a world record. The one thing that stuck with me is that we can always take something to the next level, there is always something more that we can achieve.
But at the same time I kept on thinking, if life is indeed a big mind game and the only person I am playing against is myself, what is the reward?
If I push myself and seek discomfort in order to become better and do more, am I missing something? Can we find joy in a Spartan lifestyle?
Prof. Carol Ryff studied psychological well-being, before well-being became a hype. She developed a framework with 6 categories of well-being:
Self-acceptance - Having a positive attitude toward yourself, accepting the good and the bad qualities and embracing your past as part of who you are.
Personal growth - Wanting to continue developing and learning, being open to new experiences.
Purpose in life - Having goals and a sense of direction. Feeling there is meaning in your past and future life.
Positive relations with others - Having warm and trusting relationships with others and being concerned about the well-being of others. Being capable of strong empathy, affection, and intimacy.
Environmental Mastery - Feeling in control when managing everyday affairs and being able to pursue the opportunities you want.
Autonomy - Acting in a self-determining and independent way, without falling prey to external social pressure. Together with environmental mastery, having autonomy feels like you’re in the driver seat.
So while growth, purpose and mastery are important, we also need to spend time taking care of ourselves and the people we love. Which made me think that maybe what was missing in Goggins’ story and military lifestyle was a little more joy. Or that was at least what I felt. And this brings me to the second book I read and wanted to share with you: Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness, by Ingrid Fetell Lee.
In Joyful, Fetell Lee deconstructs and demystifies the feeling of joy, which is being defined as that intense, momentary experience of positive emotion. She believes that true joy is not a feeling that comes only from inner peace and mindfulness. It’s not an exercise of mind over matter, but matter over mind.
Tangible things can create an intangible feeling of joy if we know where to look and how to capture those elements of joy.
She calls this framework, the aesthetics of joy. To me, being an optimist and joyful person, it totally makes sense, so I started to use this framework in many areas of my life from home decoration, to the way I shop, and how I spend my free time with my family and friends. I see the world around me in a more joyful way, simply because I understand the patterns. From the ten aesthetics of joy that I will briefly mention, each of us has a certain set of preferences, but it’s easy and very practical to find those elements and environments that bring most joy to you personally.
Color is energy made visible and has a profound effect on human behavior. The more saturated the color, the more our eyes are drawn to it, giving us the feeling that we are alive. There’s no coincidence that children’s toys always have bright saturated colors. They’re more fun.
When Edi Rama, the mayor of Tirana restored the buildings in the old capital by painting them in bright colors, the whole atmosphere of the city changed.
“It had a chain effect I didn’t imagine. Once the buildings were colored, people started to get rid of the heavy fences of their shops. In the painted roads, we had 100% tax collection from the people, while tax collection was normally 4%. People accepted to pay their share for the city, because they realized that through the colors, the city exists.”
Like color, natural light has been proven again and again to be a crucial factor in our well-being. Research consistently shows that increasing exposure to daylight reduces blood pressure and improves our mood and productivity.
Have you ever asked yourself why we are so fascinated by street festivals, circuses, flea markets and candy stores? Abundance doesn’t mean hoarding more stuff, but rather obtaining a wide range of sensations from an experience. It’s about sensorial richness. As humans, we need stimulation in order to feel alive and overcome boredom. Since I realized this, I became more aware of my impulses. For example, if I feel the need to grab a piece of chocolate, I can ask myself, is it because I am hungry or because I am bored? Is it really hunger or rather sensations hunger? Maybe a short break and reading through a colorful magazine is what I needed and not the chocolate.
In 2005, architects Shusaku Arakawa and Madeline Gins completed an experimental project called ‘The Reversible Destiny Lofts Mitaka (in memory of Helen Keller)’, a complex of apartments located in Tokyo. Their idea was to design a space that stimulates the body in order to bring attention to its full potential.
From all the ways in which we can feel free, nature is probably the universal place that brings joy to most people. Views of natural settings let the eyes rest and refocus between periods of staring at screens or work materials and have what researchers call a “micro-restorative effect” on our minds, relieving fatigue and refreshing our ability to concentrate. Like music, nature has a special way to reach us even when we’re focused on something else. After spending almost three weeks in Norway, in the middle of nature, this is the one aesthetic of joy that resonates most with me.
“For most of human evolution – eighty thousand generations- nature was not a place we went, but a place we lived.”
Our brain needs structure and order to function well. And joy is the brain’s natural reward for staying alert to correlations and connections in our surroundings. Order gives us the feeling of control and well-being, as opposed to disorder, which has been correlated to powerlessness, fear, anxiety and depression. So, it’s not a surprise that we feel more attracted to symmetry and organizing the world in categories. The whole is more than the sum of its parts and that’s why collections feel so joyful. We have all collected something at a certain point in our life, without even realizing why it felt so good. If you look closer, harmony and order is also at the core of Marie Kondo’s philosophy of sparking joy. But Kondo’s method is more like weeding the garden, “it’s a process of removing the background noise to create a canvas on which we then can start building a joyful home”.
This one is definitely one of my favorite aesthetics of joy and while reading Can’t hurt me, I could not help thinking “Did Goggins ever play?” Play is maybe one of the few activities in our lives, where the only metric is how much joy it creates. It’s about the process, not the result. Of course, there might be an outcome, a winner in the game, a Lego creation that we built, but the joy comes from the process. When play is brought into serious contexts like work or public spaces, it can unleash more ideas and innovation.
But while playing is an amazing source of joy, relaxation and creativity, there is also a downside to play. As it puts us in a flow state, we can get lost in play and it can become a form of escapism, like it often happens with video games addiction.
Fun fact: Did you know that play has a shape? It’s round. That’s why the ball is one of the most popular toys and objects used in so many games. Angular and sharp objects make us uneasy, while rounded shapes invite us to discovery and exploration, in a safe way.
Surprise is one of the seven universal emotions identified by psychologist Paul Ekman and its main purpose is to redirect our attention. It’s also the briefest of all emotions and it has the power to change our mood in a second, either in a positive or in a negative way, depending on what the surprise element was. No wonder that the most viral commercials are the ones that surprise us most. This might also explain why Banksy became so famous or why we love to receive post cards… And this project that artist Jan Vormann started, called Dispatchwork, combines surprise and creativity to bring more joy in dull environments, cracked walls or damaged buildings.
One of my favorite surprise moments is when I find a small object in my pocket, which reminds me of a moment or a person I love. I sometimes intentionally place small pictures or handmade objects in hidden pockets, so I find them later. A bit like Mr. Bean when he was sending post cards to himself, but who cares?
There is a strong connection between emotion and verticality. We say “spirits are high”, “I’m in top shape”, as opposed to “falling ill” or “being down”. We are fascinated by air balloons, flying lanterns and feel excited as the airplane takes off and I must meet one person who doesn’t think that treehouses are amazing (maybe people who are afraid of heights).
Transcendence is also linked to the powerful feeling of awe, an emotion that has been studied closely by Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt. We feel awe as a response to vastness and something so great and powerful that goes beyond our understanding of the world. Huge canyons, enormous mountains and vast open skies are capable of making us feel overwhelmed.
“Magic- and the permission to believe in it- is one of the true joys of childhood”. But let’s be honest, we all know one adult in our life who still believes in unicorns. Or someone who loves Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. One book I added on my reading list is Matthew Hutson’s, The Seven Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy and Sane.
Gathering around a table, birthday parties, bringing people together, listening to music and dancing, street festivals and parades are all universal acts of celebration. If we want to feel more joy, we can deliberately create an occasion to celebrate something. It can be as easy as inviting someone for a dinner and celebrate a small achievement.
“Grief takes care of itself; but to get the full value of joy you must have someone to divide it with.”- Mark Twain.
There is a bittersweet feeling associated with new beginnings. On one hand it’s the anticipation and excitement of something new, but there is also a taste of sadness knowing that this feeling will not last long. It’s what Japanese call mono no aware. There are few things as joyful as early spring flowering trees and vibrant blossoms. To me personally, the month of September has been for many years a special month of renewal and fresh energy. Schools re-open their doors, vacations are over, new plans unfold and I feel a good vibe everywhere around me. To me, September is like January 1st. Cheers to new beginnings!
Among many wise words and quotes that I wrote down, David Goggins was writing that you don’t rise to the level of your expectation but fall to the level of your training. But what if this is also valid for joy? What if we could intentionally build a joyful framework that wouldn’t let us fall too deep when everything around us gets gloomy and dark? What if we designed a life full of energy, harmony, and celebration, connected to nature and sensorial richness? We might be surprised to find that certain obstacles could suddenly appear to us in a different light and seem easier to overcome. What if joy is actually all around? And what if joy was a choice?
Recommended and Mentioned Resources: Read Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness, by Ingrid Fetell Lee Can't Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds, by David Goggins
Watch Where Joy Hides and How to Find It, TED Talk by Ingrid Fetell Lee
Listen To Our Better Nature, Hidden Brain episode, with Shankar Vedantam
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