How to Find Joy That Lasts

189758_3698It was the bottom bottom of the ninth inning in game seven of the 2001 World Series. The New York Yankees and the Arizona Diamondbacks were all tied up. As Arizonans, my family and I were thrilled to see our state getting attention for something other than sun damage, so when Luis Gonzalez hit a bloop single to drive in the winning run, we went bananas—screaming, punching the air, jumping like jackrabbits on crack. Now, ordinarily my beagle Cookie (may he rest in peace) loved human celebrations. He’d howl along and do a little tap dance, castanet toenails clicking on the floor. But after Gonzo’s historic hit, as the rest of us shrieked in victory, Cookie ran trembling to hide under the bed.

While trying to extract him, I suddenly realized that our revelry had indeed felt a bit crazed. Upon further reflection, I saw that it echoed a similar craziness in the TV commercials that had aired during the game. On television, people weren’t just pleased about new dust mops or deodorants—they were ecstatic. Women threw back their heads to laugh wildly. While eating salad. Alone. Car salesmen announced bargains with such enthusiasm, I feared for their undershorts. In fact, everything I’d seen during the broadcast suggested that the ideal emotional state is one of intense, manic euphoria, and that we should all feel that way almost all the time.

Well, it isn’t, and we shouldn’t.

Cookie’s animal honesty woke me up to the strangeness of something I’d begun to take for granted: the fact that our culture has come to define happiness as an experience that blows your mind. It’s as though we’re somehow falling short if we don’t routinely feel the way Times Square looks—madly pulsing with a billion watts of Wow! 

Don’t get me wrong. Excitement is a great and necessary thing; without it life wouldn’t be complete. But happiness—real happiness—is something entirely different, at once calmer and more rewarding. And cultivating it is one of the most important steps we can take toward creating fulfilling lives.

Peak Experiences: Faux Happiness

Intense excitement is what Asian philosophy might call the “near enemy” of true joy—something that looks like the genuine article but is in reality its evil twin. When a gift recipient or jackpot winner starts shaking, screaming, or hyperventilating, we call it happiness, but actually it’s evidence that their neurological fight-or-flight mechanism has been triggered. (This helps explain why it’s not just a play on words to say that mania can create maniacs, and why in some cases sports fans seem to riot more violently after their teams win than after they lose: Our fight-or-flight system predisposes us to violence.) Switching on this mechanism switches off the physiological processes that allow us to relax, connect, and absorb joyful experience.

What’s more, high excitement is often followed by a mood crash. Afterward we may go through a phase of feeling lifeless and depressed. Users of the recreational drug Ecstasy are familiar with the hormone drop that follows a weekend rave. They call it Suicide Tuesday, and if you’re an obsessive euphoria seeker, you’ve felt it, too, with or without drugs.

For people who think mania is happiness, the only remedy for Suicide Tuesday is another intensely exciting experience. This may explain why trips to Disney World are exalted like pilgrimages to Mecca, and why multi-day extravaganza destination weddings are becoming ever more the norm. The attitude can be traced all the way back to the European adventurers who seeded American society; they were always seeking some variety of El Dorado, some prize to top all other prizes. As a Pueblo Indian chief once told the psychiatrist Carl Jung, “The whites always want something; they are always uneasy and restless. We do not know what they want. We do not understand them. We think that they are all mad.”

The Plains of Peace: Real Happiness

True joy lacks the wild ups and downs of an excitement-based life. It’s a peaceful landscape, filled with peaceful thoughts and peaceful emotions. Indeed, it’s so peaceful that, to our adrenaline-soaked culture, it looks rather plain. In fact, I like to think of it as the plains of peace.

You can probably look back on times that didn’t seem very memorable when they were happening but that stand out in retrospect for their sweetness: floating in the ocean on a summer day; seeing the sun set as you drove home from work; picking berries in the country with friends. Relive those moments—the sound of the surf, the breeze on your face, the taste of salt on your lips, the gentle rocking of the water—and you’ll see that they’re rich, layered, and powerfully sustaining to the soul. Beagles, who wag their tails over every small joy, seem to recognize these moments continuously. Humans, not so much.

If you worry that your life is lacking in events so exciting they’ll make your head spin like an industrial food processor, I have good news: You can relax. The best way to increase genuine joy is to stop searching for manic highs and instead explore the plains of peace. Happily, you’re in the perfect place to begin: this very moment. 

How to Be Here Now

People started telling me to “be here now” when I was about 20. “Great!” I responded. “How?” Be still, they said. Breathe. Well, fine. I started dutifully practicing meditation, by which I mean I tried to be still while compulsively planning my next billion-watt wow. But one day, while reading up on the latest research in positive psychology, I discovered a two-word instruction that reliably ushered me onto the plains of peace when I couldn’t force my brain to just “be still.” Here it is: Make something.

You see, creative work causes us to secrete dopamine, a hormone that can make us feel absorbed and fulfilled without feeling manic. This is in sharp contrast to the fight-or-flight mechanism, which is associated with hysteria hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Research indicates that we’re most creative when we’re happy and relaxed, and conversely, that we can steer our brains into this state by undertaking a creative task.

To get a dopamine “hit,” make something that pushes you to the furthest edge of your ability, where you’re not only focused but learning and perfecting skills. Cooking an unfamiliar dish will do the trick, as will perfecting a new clogging routine. At first, depending on how addicted to mania you happen to be, the excitement-grubbing part of your brain won’t want to stop obsessing about over-the-top experiences. It will cling to its fantasies about the next huge thrill, its fears of Suicide Tuesday. Keep creating. 

As you persist, your brain will eventually yield to the state psychologists call mindfulness. Your emotions will calm, even if you’re physically and mentally active. You won’t notice happiness when it first appears, because in true presence, the mind’s frantic searching stops. In its place arises a fascination with what’s occurring here and now. Though this feeling is subtle, it’s the opposite of dull. It’s infinitely varied and exquisite.

The aftermath of a creative surge, especially one that involves a new skill, is a sense of accomplishment and increased self-efficacy—which psychologists recognize as an important counter to depression. Instead of a Suicide Tuesday crash, you’re left with the happy fatigue of someone who is building strength.

Pay attention to this process, and you’ll see that the motivation to be here now will gradually grow stronger than the cultural pressure to seek excitement. You’ll find yourself increasingly able to tune in to the delights of the present even when you’re not actively creating. When this happens, you’ll be on your way to genuine happiness: abundant, sustainable delight in the beautiful moments of ordinary life.

And when something genuinely thrilling happens, you’ll be ready. That wild rumpus celebrating the Diamondbacks’ victory in the World Series turned me into a baseball fan. Ever since, I’ve enjoyed watching large men in pajamas strive for victory. I enjoy going briefly berserk when my team wins. I enjoy seeing the women in commercials ecstatically dust their furniture. But I don’t take any of it seriously. What I do take seriously is the lesson I learned from Cookie and his successor, Bjorn: that happiness is available to me in every moment. It’s there in the words I’m writing now, in my engagement with those around me, in the happy sigh Bjorn breathes as we sit together exploring the plains of peace. Wow. 

Comments

  1. Kris says

    Martha, thank you for your work and continuing to share your wisdom with the world. I am ever grateful for you.

  2. Tanene says

    So this ‘faux happiness’ is like the fool’s gold that sparkles in the miner’s pan after we pour off the river water. It sparkles yet it is not really real.

    I find this awareness intensifies around holidays; it seems like our society goes from one holiday to the next yet we have misplaced/lost the true and highest purpose for that time. what really are we honoring/celebrating? So what follows is ‘suicide Tuesday’ as the fallout. The fool’s gold excitement then crashes.

    Interesting and timely Martha that I read your post as Easter Sunday is winding to a weekend close. It is a good time to reflect and find gratitude in contentment realized.

  3. says

    Hi Martha
    Beautifully timed article, yes I can look back and see I have experienced both and so this resonates deeply. I get my clients to be creative during my workshop but I probably didn’t give it as much credit until recently, and what you have explained means it’s inclusion makes so much sense!
    Love and light bernie x

  4. Ursula says

    Dear Martha

    As for today’s Blog Post:

    YOU’RE SIMPLY THE BEST :-)) So much wisdom in it.

    Thank you, I do enjoy this deeply and ….peacefully. So true! Deep resonance.

    Love
    Ursula

  5. Alan says

    This is at the top or at least in the top 5 of your blogs I ever read. I did not jump for a euphoric high upon the reading. It was a feeling of peace. You are the best complete with a sense of humor. Thank you! By the way, I have always wondered how to be in the here and now!

  6. says

    Thanks, Martha. For me, making a distinction between “happiness” and “joy” helps. I think of happiness as something that depends on an outside source, the extreme being those manic highs you described. But just as quickly as the event comes it goes away, as does our happiness. Joy, on the other hand, is not dependent on experiencing anything from outside of ourselves, it is God’s echo within, if you will. It is the knowledge that our needs are, indeed, taken care of by a Creative and powerful source, the same source that created the beauty that surrounds us, and brings us joy when we recognize it.

  7. Melane` says

    My 19 year old cat, McCoy, spent a goodly portion of his life , (RIP), trying to teach me that very lesson. Before he passed, I finally caught on. That sigh you mentioned as you share the plains of peace with your furry loved one, is what I now am trying to teach to my two, 2 year old cat-kittens. It’s one of life’s greatest lessons. Thank you for sharing it with the those who need to learn and for reminding those of us who may have forgotten it.

  8. says

    Martha, thanks for this. You helped me realize that I don’t need to feel guilty that I’m not constantly “maximizing my potential.” As always, you have a way of presenting a message I knew in my mind so that it speaks to my heart and, therefore, sticks. Thank you!

  9. ElG says

    Martha. You are spectacularly wise, and human. This is why I adore your work and your writing. Thank you. I just spent 4 days with 2-week old lambs, whinging guard geese, and gumboots encrusted with sheep excrement: sheer joy.

    I’ve been to Disneyworld. Twice. I’ll take the sheep shit.

  10. says

    Hmmm, I do see particularly from the end of the article that you aren’t actually bashing the feeling of extreme excitement, however I still feel the need to defend it a bit :)

    I don’t think it is itself a fake emotion or “near enemy”, although a version of it can be, as experiences involving this emotion are among my best and most treasured memories of my childhood. I don’t think small children generally fall for fake emotion.

  11. joyce says

    Martha, thanks for this. I used to think that being content meant that I wasn’t trying hard enough. As I get older I realize contentment is quiet happiness.

  12. Tam says

    Martha, I was so inspired by you at the PWBC conference. I do a great deal of public speaking and added several of your concepts to my call to action that occurs every month at our company. I then spoke about it again at a catholic high school leadership meeting which I am the coach for the administration. They stood their still stuck after the inward outward exercise. So then inspiration hit me- I asked how many watched greys anatomy? And most did so I led them to the way the lead characters responded to pain and change- they dance it out. So right then I put on the awesome song from American authors and we danced it out. Creativity, inspiration and change began righ then and there

  13. Jory Gerken says

    This is great insight. As a Phoenician, I remember the HIGH of that World Series Championship Game – watching history take place with our young children – priceless. But I too am concerned about the need for these emotional high’s and instant gratification to get there. This is relevant information for today – thank you!

  14. Carol says

    Thanks Martha, this was timely advice. Being creative this morning took me to that place of stillness and peace I wanted to be.

  15. sonja says

    Wonderful! I realize that I have, for most of my life, lived on the plains of peace. But I wanted off. I wanted all the excitement that others seemed to have because my life was boring. Getting older helps put all that into perspective, doesn’t it. I have a fairly easy time of being HERE, NOW. And I see so many people of all ages who can’t do that. I’m lucky and very blessed.

  16. says

    Lovely post with excellent reminders to slow down and look at the good that surrounds us. I do enjoy a thrill now and then but have learned over the long haul that it is those sweet and tender joys that are most sustainable and rewarding. Thank you for this reminder.

  17. Cyndi says

    Many thanks for the wise words “Make something.” Indeed, I’ve lost that part of me and look forward to making a thing that reminds me of who I am and reconnects me to joy.

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