The 10-minute trick to finding more joy in life
Because who doesn't want a happiness boost?
This week I’m sharing a little exercise I often come back to if I’m feeling a bit flat or uninspired. I hope it encourages you to delve into some fun things. Let me know how you get on!
Last Saturday night I went to one of my favourite East London venues, the Rich Mix, to watch the reunion of a friend’s band. Half-way through the set, as the crowd bopped away to Indian classics fused with funky beats, a group of our friends decided to launch themselves into a spontaneous stage invasion. They jumped up on stage and danced their way around the vocalist, drummer and bass player, throwing down some serious shapes with unabashed glee. Those of us watching from the floor folded over with laughter at their audacity and playfulness, their broad smiles infectious as their arms flew around in the air and they jumped up and down with delight. It was a moment of pure joy.
On the bus home later, I got to thinking about joy and how often I experience it. Not as often as I’d like, I concluded. Which was something I thought I should rectify quite soon really because joy is such a vital emotion to cultivate — not just for our individual wellbeing but for our collective sense of connection and resilience.
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During the darkest days of the pandemic, my ability to access joy was probably the lowest it had been at any point in my life and I feel that it’s only this year that it’s started to return to pre-pandemic levels. But it also took a massive knock in the months from September to December last year as the situation in Iran escalated. I’ll go into that Iran story in more detail in another newsletter, but let’s just say it’s been a deeply fearful and re-traumatising time for many in my community — with sleepless nights, anxiety, lots of crying and the sense of feeling totally overwhelmed being common experiences of friends and family members.
As the months rolled on and the arrests and death toll mounted, an unease began to spread between Iranians I know, some of whom started feeling uncomfortable tapping into joy — be that celebrating a birthday, a promotion, or other happy occasions. How could they celebrate, they said, when huge sections of the community were being imprisoned or killed? I had so many discussions with people about this at the time, arguing quite strongly (so unlike me) that it is exactly at such times of despair that it’s most important to actively take steps to try and cultivate joy.
We are multifaceted beings who can hold many emotions at the same time. Feeling happy about something in your life doesn’t diminish the empathy or pain you feel for someone else. Rather, actively trying to cultivate joy can make us feel more connected to others and can give us the energy to serve. I have a soft spot for the teachings of the life and business coach Tony Robbins and he always says that the first thing you have to do when faced with a challenge is change your emotional state, because no one ever comes up with good solutions to problems when they are in a low mood.
Whether you are witnessing tragedy, such as the earthquake in Turkey and Syria or the continuing violence in Ukraine, or struggling with more personal issues in your relationships or place of work, the best way to be effective and well resourced is to ensure you are filling your own well of resilience and incorporating more joy into your life. I can’t emphasize enough how this isn’t some hippy-dippy individualist self-care strategy, but, rather, by increasing your capacity for joy, you raise your energy and boost your optimism, all of which are a precursor to service, contribution, and activism. When we feel joy, we feel more confident, more powerful, more capable. Who wouldn’t want more of that?
The friends I hung out with on Saturday evening are connected to a wider community of activists I’ve known for about 20 years, all of whom are just as committed to partying as they are to fighting injustice. Through this network, we’ve been involved in so many different campaigns over the years on incredibly challenging subjects, from police shootings and racist attacks, to global justice and attacks on the welfare state, and without wishing to sound trite, and I genuinely think it’s our collective love of dancing that has kept us in each other’s lives, and in the struggle, for so long. We always actively prioritize joy — seeking it and creating it wherever we can — and the result is that it always energizes us and gives us more motivation to fight (even if we end up feeling hanging from staying up all night drinking and dancing).
Fine, you might be thinking, but how the hell do I cultivate more joy?! Well, here’s a little exercise that might help. I first learnt it from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron and I often come back to it.
Take a pen and a piece of A4 paper. Without thinking too much about it, make a list of 20 things you love doing. Stream of consciousness writing is best. Here are some examples from my list:
I love swimming in the sea
I love dancing in a crowd
I love karaoke with friends
I love reading women’s fiction
I love taking myself out for a fancy lunch on my own (preferably involving oysters)
Once you’ve got to 20, go back through the list and put a date on the last time you did each of those things. Use your answers as a guide. Some will likely be really easy to do. Perhaps you could book in something from your list in the next few weeks?
Let me know how you get on.
And I’d love to know what brings you joy - share your thoughts in the comments.
p.s. here’s a picture of me feeling very joyful in Big Sur, CA last autumn.
Love this! I gave it a go - did struggle to get to 20 things though and most of the things that bring me joy I have not been doing recently. Made me think I really need to put myself first sometimes and focus on what brings joy. Thank you! X
Tony Robbins! When I was going through separation/divorce around 16 years ago, a friend gave me a set of his CDs to work through. I was so sceptical but found them so useful! I’ve measured every “self help” thing I’ve come across since against them. There is an ability innate to some people which is to live in that moment of joy. I am reminded of the film version of Winnie the Pooh when they are having a party for him and he has cutlery in his hands, eyes closed, head ticking from side to side, beatific smile in his face, totally in the moment. I aspire to this!