Surprised by joy

How many times in life have you been surprised by joy?

What about the time you made a new friend? Had your first ice cream cone? 

Saw a sunset like no other? Unexpectedly fell in love?

Surely, there have been thousands of big and little moments when you were awestruck, shocked with delight.

One would think it easy to call up those moments of elation in times of stress, disappointment, or grief, but it isn’t. As neuroscientist Rick Hanson has said: “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones. That shades “implicit memory” – your underlying expectations, beliefs, action strategies, and mood – in an increasingly negative direction. We all have this built-in negativity bias. If you had trauma in your childhood your unconscious mind, even though it seems unhelpful, has strengthened your negativity bias to keep you safe. The more aware you are of possible danger, and the more you remember negative experiences from the past, the more wary and watchful you will be in the present.

It turns out, biology cares more about staying safe than enhancing your joy. Luckily, your conscious mind can choose to focus on things, especially the tiny ones, that make life worth living. It’s your job to figure out what those are. The more the better.

The British writer, Iris Murdoch, has some great advice in this regard. She said: “One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats, and if some of these can be inexpensive and quickly procured so much the better.” 

Anyone over the age of two has discovered, even if they can’t yet articulate it, that life is a series of joys and challenges. When we’re young, because we’re so egocentric, and we think the entire world revolves around us, we are prone to feel responsible for making joyful things happen as well as feeling responsible for negative experiences. This is why children, no matter how many times parents tell them otherwise, think it is their fault if the parents fight or divorce.

Clearly, once we are adults, we consciously realize that we’re not responsible for most things that happen in the universe or even our own microcosmic orbit.

Yet, for the unconscious mind forged in childhood, old habits die hard.

No one ever told us we have to work at being happy. This has never been truer than now when threats of environmental extinction hang like a sword of Damocles over everyone’s head. Of course, the Middle Ages and the bubonic plague were no picnic, but they didn’t have the Internet and second by second updates on every horrible thing that was happening.

So what’s a human to do? Seize the joy. Ferret out every little thing that makes you smile or brings delight. If your back hurts, focus on the 98% of your body that doesn’t. (You might even practice something called Pendulation, where you consciously move your attention and breathe back-and-forth between a part of your body that bothers you and a part that feels safe or neutral. It helps if you do this with alternating sides of the body.)

Savor things. Mindfulness practice, something you can do on and off all day long, enhances your experience by consciously focusing on it. When you’re eating something delicious use all five senses to slow down and fully experience it. When you’re listening to a favorite song, let it inhabit your body. You might even dance. If you’re doing yoga, qigong, walking, or swimming, embody the sensations and breath. 

Naturally, there are times in life where we have no choice but to be mindful. Some of these might include making love, riding a roller coaster, or getting caught up in a movie. They were memorable because we were fully present.

Yet, we’re still Velcro for the negative and Teflon for the positive. So, sometimes, when life feels less delightful, that old negativity bias will take over.

Though they may sound like opposites, I’m going to suggest a counterintuitive thing that you can do to support yourself when life is not going well or you’re upset about something. The first one comes from Buddhism and it’s peppered and throughout this website. Give yourself a cosmic permission slip to feel everything you feel. Furthermore, sit with it, name it, and allow it. As the Beatles said, Let it be. This is the hardest thing to do. Yet, it will set you free. Every cell in your body, mind, and spirit wants to push away pain. That’s natural. When we allow ourselves to fully feel the magnitude of our grief, for example, it can move through us. When we consciously or unconsciously suppress it, it lingers and festers.

Once you have allowed yourself to inhabit your current thoughts, feelings, and experiences, you can then remind yourself that:

This, too, shall pass. Everything in my life already has.

I can consciously remember good times and choose to believe they will come again. They will be different, and I can’t predict them, but life has shown me, through its kaleidoscope of joys and sorrows, they will appear when I least expect them.

It’s not easy being human. It’s up to each of us to curate our own life as best as we can. Though we wish it were otherwise, we can’t control most things that happen. So let’s control what we can, or at least try to.

Start today with this meditation from the free Insight Timer app and see if it doesn’t make a difference:

Copyright Nicole S. Urdang

Nicole Urdang

Nicole S. Urdang, M.S., NCC, DHM is a Holistic Psychotherapist in Buffalo, NY. She holds a New York state license in mental health counseling and a doctorate in homeopathic medicine from the British Institute of Homeopathy.