6 Practices That Bring Me Joy
“We are what we repeatedly do.” – Aristotle
I was recently approached by a student after one of my workshops: “How do you manage to stay so happy all the time?”
To be honest I was caught off-guard by the question. If someone asked me to describe myself using five adjectives, I probably wouldn’t even consider the word “happy”. It was a bit of a shock to hear someone else describe me that way. But I guess, from the outside, I do seem pretty optimistic about things.
In fact, I’ve been meditating on the question for more than a month now, reflecting on the current state of my happiness. It’s true that I generally feel very positively about my life. I have had more than my fair share of rewarding opportunities, and learned from legions of wise and insightful people. I have a lot for which to be grateful.
But it’s worth noting that where I am now is a long way from where I found myself for so many years. My mental health has not followed a straight-forward trajectory, despite how it might seem these days.
The truth is that many of my younger days were tormented. After graduating high school I experienced some of the lowest lows I’ve ever known. I grew withdrawn, avoided hanging out with my friends, and eventually stopped attending classes. Things got so bleak that I even planned and took steps toward ending my life on more than one occasion. They are dark days that still give me the chills to think about.
I realize now that most of the struggle came from the need to create some sense of meaning for my life. The quest to find purpose has been a hell of a journey, and there were many moments where it seemed an impossible, desperate, and worthless task.
It is not useful to think of happiness a final product. It is not a destination that we’re perpetually chasing. It is not something that is achieved, but something that is practiced.
But I’m happy to say that things aren’t like that anymore, and they haven’t been for a while. Gradually I managed (and continue) to make my way through the complexity of it all. I read books, I watched films, I asked lots of questions. I starting putting pieces together, making the best sense of this space as I can.
I also know that I’m not alone in this. Many of my friends, family members, colleagues and clients have had their share of mental demons to slay. All of us are on a mission to create meaning in our lives, and that process is inevitably painful.
But perhaps the most valuable lesson I’ve learned along the way is that happiness IS a process. It is not useful to think of happiness a final product. It is not a destination that we’re perpetually chasing. It is not something that is achieved, but something that is practiced. And I’ve got to say I’m so glad I didn’t give up on the process too soon. I would have missed so much.
To respond to that student I would say that there has been no ONE secret to my present joie de vivre. Rather, it has been a constant study of my self, relationships, and habits. I’ve found keys to happiness in yoga, philosophy, magic, exercise, diet and sleep. Through adventure and discovery, creativity and productivity, and through kindness and compassion.
It would be hard to say exactly how the pieces fit together, but I have attempted to compile a collection of practices that have most contributed to my present wellbeing.
6 Practices That Bring Me Joy
The practice of being in the here and now.
This practice is at the top of my list because it has single-handedly been the biggest difference-maker in my mental health. It’s quite easy for my mind to start burrowing its way into distant memories or future expectations. The practice of coming back to the moment, of being aware, has helped me develop an appreciation for the journey. I used to think happiness came after I had achieved a certain degree of wealth, or status, and would sometimes feel anxiety or worry about not having those things right now. But I have come to realize that there’s joy and contentment in every moment, if you’re willing to seek it out. Being present has improved my patience and my capacity for forgiveness. Perhaps most importantly, it has helped me learn what I can, and cannot, control.
There are lots of great ways to practice presence in your life. Yoga and meditation are great tools. Going for a walk. Perhaps simplest is to pause where you are, and pay attention to the feeling of your breath, moving in and out of your lungs. Try not to change it, or judge it. Rather, see if you can just be with it, through the inhale and the exhale and the spaces in between. The more you can stay with your breath, the more present you are practicing.
The practice of optimism.
I used to complain a lot. Complaining is so easy to the critically-minded. It’s very easy to find ways that something isn’t perfect. In fact, as a teenager I spent a lot of time pointing out flaws with the world, and with other people, and of course with myself. Sometimes my friends and I had full conversations where all we did was complain. Unfortunately all of this complaining eventually filled me with resentment and a sense of perpetual dissatisfaction. Read: complaining about the world made me unhappy.
I don’t remember how I was first introduced to the practice of gratitude, but it has been a major game-changer in determining how I look at the world. Closely tied with my practice of presence, taking a few moments to acknowledge what IS instead of what IS NOT has helped me find contentment. Practicing gratitude has helped me realize that my life is full of meaning, if only I can remember to look for it.
The practice of caring.
Most of my mental health challenges have revolved around trying to find a sense of purpose. By finding ways to help others, I found a way to create an immediate answer to that burdensome quest. It may not answer the question about the Greater Purpose of my life (or does it?) but it does help me temporarily quench the burning question of my existence. Regularly serving others is helping me stay the course.
Something I sometimes like to try is a saying “yes” day – I follow the rule “if someone asks me for help, and I can help them, then I will.” I’ve met and made some really great friends by practicing “yes” days.
The practice of learning from everything.
Over the years I’ve come to appreciate just how powerful our thoughts really are. The judgments we make determine our limitations and our opportunities. Those who say they “can’t” never will. Those who say they’re “smart” may always be afraid to fail.
Many of us develop a sense of certainty about things. Certainty creates a sense of comfort, but unfortunately it isn’t always helpful. In fact, I’m only really confident that things are far more complex than it first they seem to be. For this reason, I’ve developed an attitude of curiosity towards most things, even those things that frustrate or anger me. Every experience, no matter how negative, is transformed by my mindset into an opportunity to learn. A teacher once encouraged me to change my “F” word: whenever I feel “frustrated” I try to reframe the situation as something that’s “fascinating”.
By developing a growth mindset the learning in my life is ceaseless. When it comes to creating a sense of purpose, learning something new is one of the most powerful ways to do it. If you’re not growing, you’re dying. Or at least you’re probably not very happy.
The practice of setting high expectations.
It’s really easy to play victim of circumstance. In fact I would say that the lowest times in my life were those where I felt I had no control, where I felt like the world was happening TO me.
During my years studying in the dojo I learned that self-respect is about having realistically high expectations for yourself, and holding yourself to those expectations as often as possible.
As I’ve gotten older, I realize more and more that this isn’t so much about outcomes, as it is about actions. My expectations of myself have become defined by the actions I take, not by the results I’m able to produce. When I focus on results I usually miss the mark. But when I focus on taking action, and practice discipline of those actions, I find the results usually follow.
When we take action, we create motivation. Doing things gives us a sense of purpose. Developing expectations and holding myself to daily actions is great for my self-esteem, and ultimately, a sense of happiness.
The practice of being kind when expectations aren’t met.
It’s the most challenging of my practices. The truth is that we’re meaner to ourselves than we would ever even think of being to others.
But we must be kind to ourselves. After all, mistakes, failures, and distractions are inevitable. It’s easy to create high expectations and then miss them all together. I used to be really hard on myself when I failed to reach a goal. So much so that at various points in my life I felt like I couldn’t do anything at all. My inability to forgive myself my mistakes and errors and failures led to feelings of worthlessness and self-loathing. Our thoughts create our realities, don’t they?
A friend of mine suggested that we’d all do a lot better if we could learn to talk to ourselves like we do with our best friends. What a powerful idea! I began treating myself with kindness, nurturing my ego through errors and failures, detaching from the products and enjoying the process. Being able to forgive myself has been a powerful source of my happiness.
The path to understanding is lined with wonders and disappointments. It’s full of joy, and deep sadness. It is a rich experience, both challenging and rewarding. And the only way out is through. It is our job to ride the waves, doing the best we can with what we’ve got, and being kind to ourselves when we’re not our best, so that we can get back to being our best sooner.
We are what we repeatedly do, so choose wisely, my friends.
What are your best happiness practices?