Most of the people who come to seek help from me struggle to find a balance between fulfilling their responsibilities and engaging in the activities that bring them joy.
According to a study in the Lancet, Americans work more hours and experience more stress-related illnesses than other comparable countries. It doesn’t take a scientific research study for most people to understand that a lack of joy leads to increased stress, anger, sadness, and other negative emotions. People need joy, genuine relationships, and relaxation to lead fulfilling lives.
People have told me all kinds of reasons why they can’t, won’t, or just don’t deserve to have positive experiences. These are some of the common refrains I hear when I ask people what makes them happy:
“I don’t know how to have fun.”
“I have too many things to do.”
“I don’t deserve it.”
“Having fun is for kids.”
These beliefs, or variations on them, keep us from having the balanced and fulfilling lives we are looking for.
‘I’m Too Busy to Enjoy Life’
A lot of us are under the impression that we have to finish our responsibilities before we can “relax and have fun.” There are two primary problems with this.
First, it’s a false dichotomy that we don’t need to enjoy fun or relaxation while we are fulfilling our responsibilities. If we think that joy is supposed to come later, we will be intentionally leaving large joyless swaths of time in our lives.
The second problem is that people simply can’t be their best selves—whether as students, parents, or workers—without balance. Many of the people I work with simply collapse in front of the television once they are too exhausted to go on any further.
The average American adult spends over 35 hours per week watching television; that’s more than 10 full weeks per year. In 2017 alone, the average U.S. consumer spent 238 minutes daily (3 hours, 58 minutes) watching TV, according to a Nielsen report. While this activity may be restful, it generally does not leave us feeling fulfilled.
To find joy amid the things we do every day, we need to balance two states of mind: task completion and mental presence.
The idiom “stop and smell the roses” is related to the idea of being present. When we are taking care of responsibilities, our mental state is in task completion mode and not very aware of our sensory experiences. In other words, we don’t notice the roses. We also don’t pay very close attention to the people around us, other than how they help us complete our tasks.
We even tend to ignore our own bodies, not noticing if we are tired or hungry or how we are feeling.
The key to breaking down the wall of this false dichotomy is to be present while taking care of our responsibilities. This doesn’t mean that you will suddenly enjoy everything you have to do in your life, but it does mean you will be open to noticing when joy does come your way.
The key to being present while doing things is to focus on your performance—not the outcome or when it will be finished. When we are focused on getting the outcome we want, it detracts from our ability to be present and our performance. Peak performance comes when we are immersed in what we are doing. That is, we are present with ourselves, our environment, the people around us, and we are all in on our performance. We are truly present and focused. Some people also refer to this as being “in the zone.”
When possible it is also useful to schedule more traditional fun activities. The same principles still apply. You have to be aware and present to really enjoy them.
‘I Don’t Know How to Have Fun’
Many people that I work with who struggle with depression or anger issues tell me that they don’t know how to have fun and that they were never allowed to play. However, when I break down the qualities of a joyful experience, they can recognize times when this happens.
Here are three things that happen when we are enjoying ourselves. One, we don’t want the experience to end. Two, we lose track of time or time seems to fly past without us noticing. And three, we are not self-conscious; that is; we are not focused on how other people are perceiving us.
Can you think of anything you do where those states happen naturally? If something you do causes you to feel that way, try and schedule more time for it. If there are people you want to enjoy time with, ask them what activities bring out these states, and see if you share anything you like to do together. Schedule time with them to do the things you enjoy.
Finally, if you can’t schedule more time for things that easily make you feel joy, see if you can bring these states into your day-to-day activities. With the right mental attitude, even mundane tasks can be enjoyable. When I am doing something that doesn’t require my full mental capacities, I try to enter a prayer-like state, where I focus on my joyful and fulfilling connection to the divine as I go about my day.
‘I Don’t Deserve to Have Joy’
Many of us impose on ourselves an injunction against joy because we feel that we don’t deserve it. This normally coincides with a constant feeling of not being good enough that starts with trying to win approval from an apparently unpleasable parent. What I like to ask people with such beliefs is: “Why don’t you deserve joy? What would you have to do to deserve it?” Usually, they have internalized their beliefs without thinking about it clearly.
When you try to explain what you would have to do in order to deserve joy out loud you might realize how absurd it is that you impose unrealistic standards on yourself that you would never impose on other people.
If you notice that you have emotions of guilt or fear about having joy, you need to clarify the beliefs that are causing these emotions and stopping you from leading a full life.
How to Have Joy, Step by Step
- Make a list of things that you like to do so much that you don’t want them to end, that make you lose track of time and of your awareness about how other people are perceiving you. Look for things that make you feel good and that you feel good about. Our vices might also distract us from our worries but they don’t leave us feeling good about ourselves.
- Share your list with your family and friends, and ask them what they truly enjoy. Look for things you have in common.
- Schedule time for the people and things that bring you joy. If you perceive yourself as too busy, tell yourself that finding joy is necessary to be your best self.
- Work through any emotions or beliefs that stop you from feeling like you deserve joy. Get help from people you trust or a professional if guilt will not give way.
- Train yourself to be present and aware of joy, whether you are in the midst of fulfilling your responsibilities or intentionally engaging in an enjoyable activity.
Michael Courter is a therapist and counselor who believes in the power of personal growth, repairing relationships, and following your dreams. His website is CourterCounsel.com
Do you have questions about relationships or personal growth that you would like Michael to address? Send them to mc@CourterCounsel.com.