5 Things We Rarely Do That Would Make Life more Joyful
Disclaimer: As you read this, every single one of you will be able to conjure up multiple excuses about why the following actions can’t be possible for you or how out of touch with reality I am.
Recently when I spoke on the topic of marital satisfaction, a woman in the crowd stood up with a sly smirk on her face and tried to publicly invalidate the points I had made. “Do you have children? It sounds like you don’t, because there is obviously no way my husband and I could go on date nights with four children.” She proclaimed this as if being too busy to spend time with her spouse was a badge of honor. I disclose this to set the stage in asking you to enter into this blog with an open mind, dwelling not on your limitations but on the hope of a fuller and richer life, even if you are already functioning at a high level. I challenge you to move towards embracing these FIVE actions.
1. Accept that you will never get rid of negative feelings. Read that first sentence again and let it sink in. The main reason so many patients come to see me is because they have been lied to. Other therapists have given them countless tips and tricks on how to get rid of bad feelings, leading them to believe they can magically eradicate all pain and suffering. They eventually exhaust themselves by failing to rid themselves of negative emotions and they come to see me. The foolish notion that we can “get rid” of bad feelings is a Western idea that impatient Americans dreamed up. We can improve our lives by taking action, but we will always experience pain and suffering. Big salaries, luxury cars, children and spouses can’t stop you from hurting.
My patients have also been lied to by churches and pastors who have told them that if they pray enough, have enough faith, engage in community, and stop sinning that they will magically feel better and be happy. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Bible is filled to the brim with stories of Biblical leaders who lived agonizing lives filled with anxiety and depression. David, Elijah, Saul, Sampson, Moses, and many others suffered from the same mental disorders that we suffer from today. Even Christ wrestled with strong feelings of anxiety, so much so that many believe he suffered from hematidrosis (a condition that causes one to sweat blood from high levels of stress) near the end of his life. And during his most anxious moments, none of his friends told him, “Don’t be anxious Jesus! Why don’t you pray and petition God!” And we shouldn’t be telling people that either…
There are many things we can do that provide us opportunities to live meaningful lives, but we must ACCEPT that suffering and pain are inherent in life. Scratching and clawing and trying to push away the pain only intensify the pain. Release the notion that you can feel better by getting that promotion, praying harder, having children, marrying that guy that just won’t seem to ask you, making just a bit more money, buying that house, or any other “next big thing” that you know deep down won’t really satisfy you…
2. Explore your upbringing and heal wounds from family and friends. The most common phrase I hear during first sessions with new patients is “I had a great childhood!” And whenever I hear those words, I immediately think, “Oh. They didn’t have a great childhood!” It’s easy yet destructive to ignore our family’s failures. People often refuse to admit the ways in which their parents have wounded them because they don’t want to feel the sting of what really happened. But, unfortunately, if we don’t ever take a close look at the way in which our families failed us, we can never understand exactly why we are wired the way we are, how we move through the world, and how we relate to others.
“That’s ridiculous! Why bring up the past? I refuse to blame my problems on my parents!” my patients aggressively say as they cling to a “pie in the sky” version of their mom and pop. They misunderstand the point of uprooting the past. We talk about these things not to bash family members, but rather to help them heal properly. Without exploring these familial issues, we will never heal properly and we will hurt others close to us because our wounds have never been properly cleaned and bandaged. Faith alone won’t take the wounds away. Community won’t. Your spouses and children won’t. Alcohol won’t. Working through them, not around them, in therapy properly heals the wounds. When these wounds are healed, we can start to experience a peace we hadn’t known before.
3. Let yourself REALLY be known by others. Shockingly, only 1 out of every 5 of my patients actually have close friends, but 4 out of 5 think they do. “But Doug, there are many people that I’ve told very personal details of my life to at church, work, recovery programs, etc. But I still feel lonely…” I hear it all the time. Merely telling people personal details doesn’t connect you to them; however, consistently sharing life with them does.
How do you truly “share life” with others? Here’s a great test to see how connected you are to others. Are there 1 to 2 people (outside your spouse) who, if I called at the end of every week, could tell me where you are at emotionally, spiritually, and physically? Could they tell me about the insecurities you had that week? Do they know about the fight you had with your husband? Do they know how you are spending your money? Do they know how much time you’ve been spending with your children? If they looked at your Internet history would they be surprised? You can get by without these relationships, but your life can be so much more meaningful and joyful with them.
But deep relationships are risky, so we turn to social media for “faux friendships.” 99% of your Facebook and Twitter friends aren’t really your friends. Looking at someone’s Facebook timeline is like watching a highlight reel of his or her life. The bad parts are omitted and the good parts are amplified. If you were really having as much fun as you publicly proclaim, you wouldn’t have time to post “check ins.” The Facebook “Check In” button could be changed to a “Jealous of Me Yet?” button. Healthy, face-to-face interaction with others fulfills a deep need in us – the need to be known and know others. This is doing life with others. By failing to do life with others and by not permitting them to see all your insecurities and fears, you deprive yourself of something life giving…something deep and sacred.
4. Exercise and eat healthy. Here’s a shocking fact. I have never had a patient who committed to eating healthy and exercising 4-5 times a week for 45 minutes who didn’t report feeling much more joyful and content. Unfortunately, I can count on one hand the amount of people who actually followed through. Many want to take action, but few do. Most really don’t have any idea how to start and make the age old mistake of merely joining a gym, thinking that it will jump start their work out routine. Here are some ways to own your new workout plans:
- Set a goal based on what you enjoy. If you run, slowly increase the time you do so, or shoot for a certain number of miles. If you like elliptical machines or bicycles, do the same. If you like lifting weights, shoot for increasing weights or find new routines.
- Perhaps try a new diet-like a vegetarian diet…which is amazing and incredibly helpful for our animals and our world. : )
- Exercise with others. There are hundreds of walking, running, kayaking and cycling clubs found online. For most, the workout experience is heightened when exercising with others.
- If you don’t like traditional exercise machines or weight lifting, find a sport you enjoy that gives you a cardio kick. Try something new. Try boot camps, jump in a pool and swim, try tennis, football, dirt biking, etc…
- Find something to make the experience more enjoyable, like listening to music while you work out or attend a class your gym offers.
- Give the routine time to become a routine. For the first few weeks, you will think of exercise as a burden. But the more you go and receive endorphin and adrenaline kicks, your brain will begin to long for that same reward and chemically, you can actually look forward to exercising. But you must give your brain a chance to do this by consistently following through.
5. Play. Remember the wonder of being young, waking up in the morning and feeling raw excitement in the pit of your stomach, knowing that you had an entire day to wear yourself out? It doesn’t have to stop now that you’re grown up! Some patients report that impromptu board games, soccer, football or ultimate frisbee games with their children or friends have been some of the best weekends of their lives! Break the mold and find new things to do with your children, spouses or friends that you’ve never done before. Don’t let your to do list stop you from saying yes to things that bring you joy. Approach the day with child-like excitement, take nothing for granted and appreciate again all that the day has to give. Play again.
The above listed are five actions over which we have control. There are many things that are completely out of our control, but these are actions you can take to create a more fulfilling life for yourself. Take action now to add more color to your days.
Written by Doug Chisholm, LPC