Not long ago I found myself in a dark place. I know the signs: binge eating, moody, unfocused, and just plain down on myself. The days flicker away faster than money from my bank account. Frustrated by my mistakes and stressed by others’ requests for my time and energy, there comes a tipping point where I’m not good to anyone, including myself.
Life takes me away from feeling grounded in who, what, and why I am. I feel more anxiety and depression than joy.
When I get to that point, I want to get back to being me.
It doesn’t take a major activity to feel myself again. Small actions make a beneficial impact, and so I asked myself, “What am I doing when I feel more myself?” I created a list of actions that help me feel centered, focused, and calm. Your list will vary from my go-to choices. These are what work for me. I’ve categorized them as people, places, or things.
Staying close to friends that are positive, affirming, and attentive helps build my confidence and encourages me to take risks like writing fiction. My most joyful moments are with a friend that accepts me for who I am. They “get” me. I don’t have to hide behind my societal mask or screen my responses. I can just say what I want to say. I know the feeling. It’s like I can’t stop talking. I become unabashed in my statements. It feels so good.
We all need that buddy, confidant, best friend or significant other that avoids “surface” conversation like the weather and news and jumps right into the raw, authentic conversation.
For example, when a neighbor of mine gets down on herself, she calls this one friend. By the time she hangs up, her entire perspective on life improves.
Who is the person that comes to your mind when you feel depressed or anxious? That someone worth contacting. If it’s an old friend you haven’t spoken to in a while, why not call them or set up a time for coffee?
If you can’t think of that one person, then maybe a group suits you better.
In Okinawa, Japan, the government understands the importance of human contact and rejuvenating health. They assist and encourage senior citizens to stay connected by helping them to form small social groups that meet weekly. The one rule is to keep the conversation light-hearted. These groups contain some of the longest living individuals on earth.
In Canada, similar groups exist for men. One woman’s group noticed their husbands sat in the cars by themselves during their meetings. They knew their husbands had bottled-up emotions, so the women helped the men form their own groups. Now, there are many Men’s groups around the country.
As for myself, I belong to two men’s groups. The first group asked me to join them for a beer at a local microbrewery. They met every Friday for an hour. They drink one beer and go home, but in that hour of mundane conversation, all feel a connection and support.
I enjoyed attending that group so much that I started another group. The second group meets weekly for two hours at a park under an oak tree. Like the first group, we talk about current events, movies, and politics, but also the daily struggles of life. In both meetings, the men come away feeling like, “Okay, I can get through the next week.” We miss it when the meeting doesn’t happen.
Men and women both need to feel that connection to humanity. The ladies, I feel, are just better at making it happen. They have their sewing groups, “stitch and bitch” knitting circles, book and movie clubs , game nights and more. I know a woman who meets her friends at concerts regularly. The types of groups are endless for women.
Don’t know anyone with similar hobbies? Social media is another way to find others with similar interests. I use the Meetup app to find people with like passions. “Meetup is a social media platform for hosting and organizing in-person and virtual activities, gatherings, and events for people and communities of similar interests, hobbies, and professions.” For example, I enjoy hiking, so I logged on to Meetup and joined five Meetup hiking groups and go once or twice a week. Meetup host a gamut of interests. If you don’t see a group you like, start your own.
People rejuvenate us in powerful yet simple ways. Take the initiative to meet with friends and acquaintances regularly. Invite a few at one time from any segment of your life. We all need that time to rejuvenate back to more joy in our lives.
We will continue this topic in two more segments.
“The smallest and gentlest acts keep us grounded.” Julia Cameron
I camped at Balch Park near Sequoia National Park in California, USA to rest my weary self under the canopy of the giant sequoias and redwood trees. I was seeking enjoyment in a peaceful environment away from the busyness and traffic of life. I thought nothing could bring me greater joy than to experience the forests, lakes, and mountains. . . I was wrong.
My friend Steve had invited me to join him and his family on a camping trip. I loved the idea, accepted his invitation, and drove up the mountain to the most enchanted campground I’d ever seen. It was breathtaking scenery of lush evergreens and giant conifers, the kind of images I might see in a magazine or a movie.
Just sitting on the tailgate of my truck, I let the forest sights, sounds, and smells come to me.
Enjoyable, yes, but then I walked down to Steve’s campsite and fell into conversation with my friend, his son, and his granddaughter. Suddenly, my enjoyment elevated to an entirely higher level. Our talk, punctuated with boisterous laughter and entertaining words overflowed my “enjoyment bucket.”
When I finally hiked back to my campsite that evening, I thought why did I feel so happy? What brought on so much joy? Surely, I thought the forest setting would, and it did, but not as satisfying as the conversation with my friend and his family. I observed other campsites on the way back. All of them filled with people around a campfire, all involved in the conversation, or games, or eating, and I could sense their enjoyment.
I had to admit to myself that as perfect as this camping experience was, my truest enjoyment came through the conversations with the people around me.
I pondered this back at my camp sitting alone stirring my campfire, millions of stars overhead, the scent of forest pine and campfire smoke heavy in the air. Yes, the camping experience and environment were enjoyable, but my conversations with Steve and his family at their campsite were the highlight of that enjoyment.
I looked at the now darkened sequoias around me and listened to the silence, but there was a hollowness in the silence. I had my book, food, fire, and solitude and these brought me peace, yes, but joy?
The sequoia trees around me, majestic, towering, and massive, looked so independent, but even they are connected to one another. According to the latest research, trees communicate connecting root systems and working together to help their genus survive. One study in British Columbia found one tree connected to 48 others nearby.
For humans, it turns out there is compelling evidence that proves the link between more frequent and deeper social interactions and a person’s well-being. In a study done by the University of Davis in California, USA, and the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, researchers Jessie Sun, Kelci Harris, and Simine Vazire explored the elements of what makes people feel good: people interaction or solitude and does quiet time or social time have more benefit.
In a report titled IsWell-Being Associated with the Quantity and Quality of Social Interactions?Researchers explored people’s interactions on different levels and found a person’s well-being was raised on almost all social interactions, even the fake conversations, had some benefit. The researchers also found even introverts that dislike large gatherings still felt a higher well being after these gatherings.
From the research and my own experience, I realized I needed to connect more to people. I wondered about which conversations brought me the most enjoyment in life.
I decided to improve my conversation skills, to step out of my comfort zone and risk words that flowed off my tongue — which can be dangerous as my mouth usually gets ahead of my brain and I don’t realize that until I get home and my wife points it out to me later what I said. She can think things through before actually putting voice to words . . . maybe women are blessed that way.
I’m not, so I researched online to find better ways to communicate without making a fool of myself, and I read through articles titled “78 Deep Conversation Topics” or“15 Questions That Are a Better Way Than ‘What Do You Do?'” or “20 Questions to Ignite Meaningful Conversations.” The list of articles on this topic is endless. Most of the suggestions in these articles seemed more appropriate for interviewing someone on stage at a Ms. America or Ms. World competition. Questions like “What does your joy look like today?” or “What is important enough to go to war over?” or “What do you do over and over again that you hate doing?” The questions left me wondering: Who talks like that?
I decided my conversations must be a topic where I can connect with others and that connection can run the gamut from jobs, careers, families, loves, health, hobbies, experiences, and, of course, Rotary, then I can deepen the conversation to more personal, honest feeling about “stuff,” but that’s only the start. I still have to feel a true connection and not a forced connection and that takes time and effort on my part.
It helps to add a dash of humor, but I’m out of luck in that skill: I’m not funny. The only time people laugh at something I say is when I’m trying to be serious, and as they sit there giggling at my candor, I say in all honesty, “I’m serious” and they laugh even more.
One study found that a person’s happiness depends on the happiness of people they connect with. Happiness can be infectious and lift my spirit while moody people can drag me down. So, while people might inadvertently laugh at something I say maybe that’s okay. I would rather that happen then to walk around so guarded that others feel guarded, as well, and then the whole point of trying to find meaningful conversations is lost. That’s a decision I can make to be uplifting and positive and open . . . but not try to be funny.
Yet, I need to make sure I don’t take myself too seriously. I need to seek out new and old acquaintances to find my people that “get me.” I need to learn better conversation techniques. Okay, it might feel a bit nerdy to study how to have meaningful conversations, but I never really learned how to have a great conversation.
So, I will continue to research books and articles about the art conversation. I will practice and purposefully expand my contacts and experience at least once a week.
Where do I find such people? I realize I don’t have to travel to exotic places to find great conversations. I can reach out more at my own Rotary meeting. I can say more than “Hi” to people I see on my neighborhood walks or at the grocery store, or outing or even in my own home with my wife. . . hey, there’s a novel idea: deeper conversations with my wife.
It takes a little risk (even with my wife): a risk to encourage conversation, a risk to approach people to offer more conversation at a deeper level and to see how people respond. I can make the first move beyond statements like “Nice weather” or “How are you doing?” or “How’s work?
In the long run, I know I will succeed, and I might experience joys and connections I never thought possible like the ones with my friend Steve and his family.
“The Joy in Meaningful Conversation”, pg. 6
It might come at the most unusual or common time and in a most unusual or commonplace with people I never thought I would connect.
It doesn’t take a sublime setting like Sequoia National Park to find joy in a conversation.
A Zen master and his student are walking in a forest discussing ways to quiet the mind of distractions. They come to a fast rushing stream where a damsel stands stuck on one side. She asks the master for help to cross the stream. The student assumes the master will say no because of their ascetic lifestyle, but the master agrees and assists the woman across. When the two get back to the monastery, the student confronts the master. “How could you do that? It expressly forbidden us to touch a woman.” The master smiled and asked, “Did you not learn anything today? You still carry the woman around in your mind while I left her at the riverbank.”
Like the Zen student, I ruminate on frustrations from past events or worry about my future and everything in between. My mind, my thoughts play a power role in my mood.
Sometimes my desires for more and better get the best of me. I worry about having more time. Dwell on some indiscretion done to me by a friend, acquaintance, or stranger. I look at where I am in life and think I should have done more, be more, have more. It doesn’t matter what the circumstance. It all happens in my thoughts. I let thoughts control my feelings.
The point is we all have times when our thoughts control our feelings. We allow them to run free in our head and we chase them; hold them; and worst of all believe them.
But they are just thoughts.
I looked for ways to break that negative thoughts cycle over the past few years and found exercises that work. I’m proud of myself. My mind feels “cleaner,” less cluttered. The negative thoughts still come, but I’ve learned how to better deal with them. I can do something about them besides dwell on them.
Here are six techniques that help me deal with my thoughts.
The Ten Second Centering Technique
The ten-second centering technique is taken from a book titled Ten Zen Seconds, by Dr. Eric Maisel. It’s a simple exercise of expanding my breathing from the normal two to three seconds to ten seconds.: five seconds inhale, five seconds exhale.
This expanded breathing rhythm signals my mind that something is different with my breathing and my mind focuses on the breathing and not the thoughts. My breathing distracts my thoughts. This works great when I’m worrying about something or excessively thinking about a project or idea. I found it works best when I count the seconds: five seconds on the in-breath, five on the out-breath.
Dr Maisel recommends adding mantra. A mantra is a word or phrase repeated in the mind. With every inhale of five seconds, repeat part of the phrase and with every exhale complete the phrase. For example, I would breathe in for five seconds and think “In every moment. . .” and on the exhale say, “we can find joy.” I admit it’s corny, but it works for me. Dr. Maisel lists twelve examples of mantras in his book and encourages users to experiment with creating your own.
There is power in a place. Something as simple as moving to another room, outside, or further can help break the cycle of sadness. University of Notre Dame Psychology found that by going through doorways or portals causes the brain to file away a memory. It’s subtle, simple. Go somewhere different I choose to go outside and choose a place that I know brings on joy: a walk in the forest; playing a sport; visiting with friends; or creative writing.
Move My Body
Any movement gets my mind focused on the mechanics of moving instead of thoughts. A walk around my neighborhood, a hike in the hills, cooking, cleaning, anything that gets me moving takes my mind away from thoughts. Physical and mental recreation of any type increases the endorphins, the “feelgood” chemicals produced by the body. Endorphins are released during exercise and are in the same class of chemicals as opioids.
Connect with Positive People
Being around positive people help bring joy back into my life. I call friends I know that have an intense positive outlook on life. I meet with three friends weekly that make me laugh. It’s two hours of conversation. We are so comfortable with each other and our conversation so engaging that it’s hard to leave. But, those conversations leave a flavor running through me that lasts the week. I remember their stories, and it brings a smile to me during the week.
I know someone that suffered from bouts of suicidal thoughts, especially when left alone. When he drove home from work alone with his thoughts, he always called someone that was positive, upbeat, and caring. He talked to that person for his entire ride home until he was with his family. It worked for him. He doesn’t need that support currently, but he knows that talking with positive people helped him relax in the now, accept his current situation, and hope for the future.
Use My Gift
We are are good at something. My gift is creativity. I love to create. To throw my mind into a project not only takes me out of my negativity, but puts me in the best mood. But, creativity is just one gift. I found the StrengthFinders assessment a valid way to help me find other strengths.
Wish My Antagonists Well
People can iritate me, anger harms only the angry person. It festers in the mind and can build up to a point where the mind moves the mental pain to other different points in the body: the neck, the back, and other joints and muscles. The back aches, knees, joints or muscle pain could come from mental anguish I hold. Research found a connection between body pains and illnesses and our thoughts.
The way I deal with anger is to think well of my antagonist.
I listen to a Jeff Warren on the meditation app Calm. One day during the last presidential campaign, I found myself full of rage at the news. Government officials were saying and doing things I felt wrong. This raised my blood pressure, heart rate and just put me in a bad mood.
To let go of those angry feelings, Jeff recommended the following exercise: Visualize the offending person/persons then say the following words: “May you be safe; may you be healthy; may you be happy.” Say them repeatedly while thinking of the person.
It works! I thought well of that person until the next negative thought about that person, then I repeated the phrase. Keep repeating it until the anger goes away.
It worked so well that I now think that phrase in public when in a disagreement with someone. It helps me stay calm and peaceful in that moment.
Change Worry into gratitude
Joy is already available everywhere, every day. It’s up to us to train our minds away from the negative thoughts to feel the joy around us.
My wife and I have this exercise where if one of us shares a worry and we both realize it’s trivial we say something for which we are grateful. We do this ten times. We realize saying the gratitude out loud helps us put in perspective the insignificance of the worry. I found gratitude listing an effective way to ease my worries.
Along with gratitude, daily meditation has become a routine that helps clear my mind. Making it a practice of ten minutes a day. I let the negative thoughts pass through the mind like a wave passes across the water or an object floats down a river. The thoughts will come, but it is my choice whether I grab hold of the negativity passing in my mind. Meditation helps me do that.
Like the Zen student, we all hold thoughts we should let go. Finding mental exercises that mitigate the negative and harmful thoughts keeps me calm, focused and most of all brings me back to feeling more joy.
I did not fully understand my addictive tendencies until I found myself on a hospital gurney with nurses bustling around me and the medical monitor blaring warning sounds like a fire alarm.
I stared at the ceiling and asked myself, How did I get here? Like most people, I ignored the warning signs. I was too busy with the intoxicating feeling of false joy from my addiction.
A false joy to me is in outcomes that fill me with euphoria that I want more — bigger and better of the same thing. A false joy is where I dropped everything else in my life: my writing, hiking, reading, even my relationships to go after that feeling. A false joy urges me on. I tell myself: Just five more minutes or just one more game and then hours later I feel the exhaustion that physically shuts me down.
The stock market fed my addiction, the New York Stock exchange where thousands of stocks trade. Making $600 my first trade hooked me. The false joy I felt from making easy money gave me a rush I’d never experienced before in my mundane life.
I decided I needed to learn more,4 about stocks, so I scoured books about the market, the trade strategies, and the memoirs of those that hit it big. I told myself I needed to watch and experience the market more. So, I awoke at 4 a.m. when the market opened and traded in the pre-market and during the day and then the aftermarket. I traded 10-15 stocks a day in search of that now elusive easy money that gave me a rush of false joy.
All those green and red lights twinkling up from the screen enticing me to play the game. The rush of dollars into my account made me want more. Unfortunately, what goes up eventually comes down. My accounts were no different.
Well, fast forward five years, and my account is down $15,000. I awoke before dawn one morning and felt something wasn’t right in my chest. I went to the hospital and found my heart racing at 150 beats per minute, my blood pressure extremely high.
I made promises to myself that I would change. I would turn my back on this false joy. The doctors pumped me with medicine; my heart rate and blood pressure came down. They released me with an assortment of multi-colored pills to swallow daily. The medications keep my heart in check.
“The false joy I felt from making easy money gave me a rush I’ve never experienced before in my mundane life.”
I stopped playing the market for a few days. Then, I wondered how my Boeing stock was doing and regretted that I didn’t buy American Airlines. Other stocks kept calling me back. So, I’d peek at it and then closed the screen. Nothing happened. My heart was okay. Then a few days later I opened my account screen, again, looking at the blinking red and green lights. I made one trade — nothing happened, my ticker still worked.
A week later, I checked the stock market. I stayed on for a couple of hours and that’s when it happened. I could feel my chest pounding. I sensed something was wrong. I quickly got off the computer, but the damage had been done. I took my blood pressure. It had shot up way passed my normal rate as did my pulse. I took myself for a walk in the forty-degree predawn air. I did some chores. Drank lots of water. Eventually, the blood pressure came back down.
I asked myself, “When will I learn I am addicted to gambling in the stock market?
Well, I’ve been clean now for a few weeks.
My urges to glimpse at the market have subsided. Occasionally, my mind says take a peak, but I haven’t so far, and I’ve learned a lot these past few weeks.
What I learned from my experience.
I took time to think back about my actions both pro and con in hopes to avoid future mistakes and learning how to recognize my addictive behavior. This is what I learned:
I learned to distance myself from the stock market and activities, objects, and even people where my mind says, “Oh, just a little longer.”
I deleted my access to the market. I restarted my journal. I wrote stories, letters, and blogs. I hiked the hills and marveled at nature. I walked into my neighborhood and stopped to talk with neighbors. I read many books. I spent more time with family and friends. My wife and I go out to eat more with people we connected with. We babysit our grandchildren three days a week.
I learned to recognize my addiction signs: avoidance of activities that I enjoy doing; emotions that rise and fall acutely; urgency in my behavior toward an activity, person, place or thing and when I’m more tied to the getting that next rush than living my normal daily — which is actually a pretty good life.
I learned false joy comes with a price tag. The cost is my health, wealth, friendships and everything else that brings me true joy.
I learned that expectations of some end result, like making money, winning something, getting something, or reaching for something is not true joy. Once I felt the rush I wanted more and bigger rushes and expected that same level of “high” again and again.
I learned that genuine joy comes from the journey and not the result.
I learned that the simplest actions can provide distractions from my struggle. Sometimes when I concentrate on these everyday moments, whatever I am doing at that moment, and give myself fully to it, whether I’m creating through words or listening to a friend, there is great joy in these moments — true joy.
I learned that my addictions begin with urges, pulling me toward the addictive behavior.
I learned urges are like ocean waves that build inside me but then the wave passes over me and subsides.
I learned I have actions I can take to fight the urges until they pass: I can engage in conversation: call it what it is, “an urge” and tell myself I know it will pass like a wave; I can do meditation/breath; I can redirect the urge to positive activities (walking, art, writing, a game, etc); I can change rooms/settings (new studies show that changing my place, going through a portal such as a door alters your mind’s focus).
I learned addictions come in many forms besides drugs, alcohol, gambling. I never knew I could even get addicted to a person, place or thing. I knew I could become addicted to a video game, but I never knew I could get addicted to a sport like pickleball where I tell myself, just one more game.
I learned that true joy is found in the process and not tied to an outcome that can be a false joy. My true joy soars when engaged in my talents, abilities or passions and the outcome is just a secondary benefit.
“Desire and ignorance are the root of all suffering.”
I learned that when I fixate outcomes or end results, I miss the opportunity to experience true joy.
I learned that true joy has no time limits. In Robert Pirsig‘s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he mentions the clock. Time constraints are the killjoy any interest. If there is no time element involved in an activity, then the activity can become play. If there is a time constraint, then the activity may become work.
I learned that sometimes it takes hitting “rock bottom” where the pain of the world far exceeds the false joy felt from the addiction before I make better choices. Lying in that hospital bed was my “rock bottom.” I am grateful for the second chance at enjoying this bountiful life.
That’s where I can pull myself back to the things that bring me the genuine joy of life.
I could sit for an hour and let my mind wander to joyful past experiences, and while my mind could conjure up an event here, an activity there, I felt no closer to figuring out how to understand or define what the theme was that ran through my adventure of what enjoyment truly was to me.
It wasn’t until I came across an activity called the Seven Stories Exercise that I found another way that helped me discover those tangibles and intangibles that made it easy to feel joy or at least discover patterns or themes that brought joy. The Seven Story Exercise has roots in the work of Bernard Haldane, who worked for the U.S. government back in the 1960’s, to help determine assignments for executives entering the armed forces.
Before I started I had to remind myself: what is joy? What does it look like?
To me, joy is euphoric, a deep sense of contentment, peace yet exhilaration and delight. It goes deeper into our being and envelops our entire self, almost an unconscious welling up inside that grows as a opposed to happiness, a surface reaction to an experience.
With happiness, I can be happy on the outside but still feeling hollow on the inside. Feeling joy fills me up.
For some people it’s other people in their circle bring the only joy they need: their kids, grand kids, friends and family. For others it might be a sense of adventure: using their abilities, seeing the unknown, meeting new people, trying new activities.
Then there is joy on a much smaller scale, sights, sounds, smells that can prompt joy: a flower, a smile, a kind word, a sunset or sunrise. Momentary joys that linger and maybe we try and capture that joy in the moment with a picture.
For everyone it’s something different. Whatever positive act that brings on that joy, it’s worth diving deeper into our past to discover areas we’ve missed in our lives or patterns that bring on our joy. Thus, the reason for the Seven Stories Exercise for joy.
Originally the exercise was meant for people searching for a type of job or work they might enjoy. I found it helpful when I looked to change careers, but I also found it helped uncover joyful experiences and the themes, similarities and patterns to my behavior and experiences that brought me joy.
When looking for a career or job the Seven Stories Exercise has you reflect back at patterns of work that brought you the most accomplishments. You write out concrete examples of tasks, you performed and then look at underlying themes in your jobs that point to skills you enjoyed using.
For joy, you reflect back on your most joyful experiences and write down times, events, people, activities, what ever brought you joy. You write down 25 of these times as far back as your memory goes. List them as quickly as you can.
When you list these activities and accomplishments, try to write more than a word or two. Write a phrase.
Instead of writing “Fishing” I was more specific “Fly fishing on the Hood Canal brought me joy”
Instead of writing “Boating” I wrote Ferrying people around a harbor or lake brought me joy
Instead of unstructured time I wrote to have an entire day to go where I want, do what I want
The key is not to guide the exercise to what you want, but to write the random memories that pop into your head that you remember brought you joy. There is no write or wrong answer and you can always do more that 25.
Once you are satisfied with your list, there are two things you can do.
I remember when I did the Seven Stories Exercise I did not expect much. Writing down 25 is a lot and it forced me to think back.
I took a few days and what happened is I thought about things I hadn’t thought about in years: Places I visited, people I’d been friends with, activities I had forgotten that had given me such joy. The point was to push myself to write and write enough to empty my conscious thought and force myself to delve deeper. It was easier to remember that carnival I worked at as a kid that brought me such joy. It was much harder to look at the simple stuff like “water.” I remember so much joy standing out in the pouring rain in a new river flowing down the street. It wasn’t a lot of water, but it was water and it brought me so much joy just being in it. It reminded me of a story from my parents about me as a kid and how much I loved putting my hands in water, doing dishes, visiting the ocean. It reminded me of how much I enjoyed just washing down the driveway. It was being in the presence of water, in the water, feeling water that brought a smile to my face.
First, You can pick the top seven memories and expand your phrase into a few paragraphs or more. Write out more details of the experience. Maybe it wasn’t the activity you enjoyed but the people or the place. Maybe there are other details in your paragraphs that point to things like it sparked your need to be creative or it energized your need to be competitive. In that case, look beyond the physical and more toward the mental.
Second, you just look at all 25 that you wrote and look for patterns, common themes, and activities that you may or may not remember enjoying.
I’d reflect back on our family’s swimming pool and remember the summer days of pool time. It was fun. I remembered the freedom to swim daily, playing games like tag or Marco Polo, where you had to find someone in the water with eyes shut and the only word you could utter was “Marco” and they had to say “Polo.” We created games like king of the hill, who could stay on the top step of the pool the longest without being pulled off into the water. We played torpedo where we fill up plastic bats and fire them at one another underwater.
I finished this and asked myself, “Why am I not swimming more? A little later I joined a local gym that had a pool. It had been years since I’d swam, but I felt my freestyle swimming stroke come back. I felt tired at the end of swimming a four hundred meters when I started but so exhilarated by the experience. Swimming still makes me feel amazing and fills me with peace and joy.
Bring around water does bring me a lot of joy . . . but there was more.
Some experiences that floated to my conscience surprised me. For example, I remembered convincing my mom to let me stay home from school. I faked sick because I had an idea I wanted to expand. It was for a new board game and I wanted to spend a day making my idea into a reality: making it, playing it, and seeing where the idea went. I couldn’t tell you much about it now, but that it brought me so much joy to practice my creativity.
That gave me insight into my penchant for creativity. I remember creating/organizing a football tournament with the local neighborhood. Later in life I created a golf group that met monthly and a business that grew as I created it– that was the most joy. I created games at the beach to overcome the boredom of just sitting in the sun.
After doing the exercises and the writings I had a few epiphanies about myself. One, I am an extremely creative person. I love to create in any down time or bordom I feel. My engagement in this process is so enjoyable that I did anything to keep it going including faking sick so I could stay home and work on my creative ideas. I would last all day and long into the night just fiddling with my ideas.
I realized my independence is precious to my enjoyment in life. Someone giving me orders, telling me what to do and even working on a team causes me undue stress. While many people enjoy being part of a team and not stand out, I loved the independence to do what I want, when I wanted. I remembered as a child hiding behind couches to be able to do my own thing because my parents where telling me too many things to do. My grandmother tried to get me involved in something SHE wanted me to do, not what I wanted to do. I tried to get away, into other rooms. Eventually, she just let me go. I remembered an adventure where I left my aunts house and wandered a few blocks on my own. I couldn’t have been more than five. I found my way back, and the memory still brings me joy. Being on my own was and still is an intoxicating elixir.
I realized how much I love meeting with new people, finding out there stories and helping them connect with others like themselves. Engaging in conversation is most exhilarating and joyful.
All these things bring me joy, but when I narrow it down to THE most joy I feel in life, I narrowed my focus to one thing: creativity. All the things I have done, the most joy came from creativity. When my kernel of an idea ignites into a full-blown creation, nothing, nothing brings me greater joy.
May you discover things, activities, and “little things” that brings you the most joy and be unafraid to add them to your life.
Not long ago I found a boat for sale. It was a sailboat of 23 feet that its current owner abandoned in a boat storage yard. The manager of the yard said I could have it for what the owner owed for the storage rent, which was only a few hundred dollars.
I’ve always imagined the joy of owning a sailboat, sailing the open seas, feeling the sun and breeze, and smelling the salt air; all the joy my imagination my mind could perceive.
The picture above does not offer a good image of her capabilities. This boat was in good shape; it had all the equipment needed to ply the local waters; and was ready to go.
I climbed in the cockpit, grabbed the varnished wood tiller and imagined sailing her in the open water. What joy I imagined I would feel if I bought this boat!
I drove out to look at her weekly for the next few weeks. I climbed aboard and just imagined the joy of owning it. It’s comfortable seating; it’s efficient cabin for sleeping; it’s ability to take me places I couldn’t go to otherwise.
I knew boats took time and money but what stopped me from buying the boat was what one blogger wrote: “Everyone is in love with the idea of owning a boat, but the reality is boats are a lot of work.”
He’s right I was in love with the idea of owning a boat. I decided not to buy.
His words hit home with me, and I thought about the reasons I wanted the boat. I did imagine it would bring me joy but that experience lasts only for so long before I get bored. The boat needed some work, and I weighed my time constraints with traveling an hour to the boat yard, sanding and painting the boat then driving an hour home. Did I really have that kind of commitment?
My imagination of what I thought the joy of sailing would bring, would be but a small percentage of the responsibility, work and money the boat required.
I sensed my interest in sailing would wane quickly and the boat would be like most in the storage yard, left gathering dirt and dust.
This experience led me to reflect on imaginary joy versus an actual joy.
I thought about other times in my life, times have I imagined or perceived potential joy?
Before most decision, I ran the pros and cons of a futuristic experience and judged the degree of joy or happiness it would bring me: Going to a party, taking a certain vacation; buying a certain car; writing this blog, going to the gym . . . anything and everything I might judged my level of joy.
The truth is I didn’t really know if I would feel joyful with these experiences and many others until I’m actually engaged in the activity, object or people and have some actual proof of how I felt.
This helped me develop fresh realizations about my life.
I don’t know what joy I have in the foreseeable future until I experience it.
I must try different activities, meet different people, eat different foods, and be open to new experiences without judgement as to whether or not they will bring me joy.
I must move out of my comfort zone.
To help me along these three paths, I sensed the need to alter my perspective in these six areas.
Listen with an open — but objective –mind.
This sounds easy but the society, friends and family around me bombard me with their own judgements of what brings joy. Most of it meant to tug at my emotions, insecurities, or judgements and sway me to a decision of their recommendations.
Occasionally, what other people say altered my decision. Take movies or Netflix shows, someone might highly recommend a show, a book, a restaurant, etc. I will decide to choose their recommendation with the anticipation of the joy it will bring only to find I did not like it.
When I was younger, I was more easily swayed to other’s opinions. Sometimes in life altering ways. For example, when I started college, my aunt cornered me one Christmas to encourage me to get a degree in business. “You’ll make good money,” she’d say. “That business degree will open many doors to jobs for you.”
“It takes courage to do what you want. Other people have a lot of plans for you.” Joseph Campbell
My aunt was a smart successful woman. I imagined that’s what I wanted. I perceived a great joy from attaining that goal: get a business degree.
I earned a degree in Business, Finance option and found I hate working in the field.
What I realized now is I needed to actually experience the career in some way to see if I like it, I mean really like it.
I read on Facebook and forums people asking what they should do for a living. I witnessed a variety of answers. I asked myself, “How did a person make sense from the myriad of choices.
The only way I know now to help with choices is to experience them.
The only real joy comes from the real experience.
Listen to Intuition
I leaned on my intuitive notions probably more than I should. Intuition is that feeling one gets with little or know knowledge to make a decision. Science shows that intuition works best when a person has some experience in the subject he or she intuits.
Instincts have lead me true in cases where I have experience with a person, place or thing, but in situations where I am new with not so much experience I could not depend on it.
However, I do have years of experience knowing myself. I listened to my intuition of my needs on many occasions. For instance, this blog was a result of my intuition. Something told me I should write a blog about Joy, not once but many times.
The this blog fills me joy. When I finished a day’s work, my “well” is full, and I can be more for my family and friends. I did not think writing this blog would bring me this much joy. I had to experience it first before I knew.
Learn from the past experiences.
I have a host of life experiences and reflecting back on them helps to separated my imagined joyful experiences versus real joyful experiences. A tool called the seven-story exercise helps individuals learn from their past, almost forgotten experiences, what brought them joy.
This method used by career and life coach professionals encourages their clients to search their memories — good memories — write them out and look for similarities of what made them joy.
I have written my seven stories and synthesized out what experiences were enjoyable. I have incorporated them into my current lifestyle.
To go back to the sailboat I wrote about in the opening, I look back at my experience with sailboats. When I am honest with myself, I realize I found the refinishing a boat brought some joy, but the actual sailing I found boring: Tack this way, travel that direction, while the first 30 minutes felt joyful the remaining time I fought tedium. Another reason not to buy the boat.
Block judgment of a person, place, or thing.
I will stop making judgements and come to an experience with an open mind. I don’t know if joy will be part of the experience until I move toward it with an open mind.
Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, encourages people go on dates by themselves. She calls them “artist’s dates.” The goal is to experience something out of the ordinary day’s activities.
Choose something different. At this time of my life, I choose Artist’s dates that involve activities I’ve never tried because. I am retired and I want to try new recreational activities.
If I was young and seeking career ideas, I would go on these artist’s dates only I would call them “career dates.” I would call up someone in a career that interests me ask for an interview; ask to experience the job. I would make a different career date weekly. I’ve done this later in life and it saved me much time and money figuring out what does not bring me joy.
To me, the key to any truly joyful experience is not just feeling good or telling myself, “Yeah, I can do this.”
No, it feels euphoric to the point where my confidence soars and I want to give back to other people. I become more passionate, more generous, and above anything else I feel like I can make a difference in the world. That’s the feeling of absolute joy to me.
I stopped asking others to make a decision for me and instead summoned the courage to go find out for myself. I found it much more rewarding in the long run.
To practice focus on this moment is said to induce more joy.
“The real secret to life is to be completely engaged in the here and now.”
Alan Watts, philosopher
Instead of looking into the future, past memory or present judgement to find joy and happiness, maybe — just maybe — all joy is right now, right in front of me . . . if only I focus into it. This takes concentration and builds concentration.
Writing this blog builds my concentration. I focus on its creation. Creativity, is my gift to the world and in concentrating on it, putting focus into it, I feel so much joy in that moment.
That joy would not have come about had I let my mind wander.
Life is about experiences, some large and sublime other tiny and fleeting. I will work to come out of my comfort zone and experience the unknown without judgement whether or not each will bring me joy.
I will work to observe more of the people, places, and things around me I take for granted.
I will work to concentrate and finish that which I started so I appreciate the full experience.
The sailboat experience is gone, but there are so many more opportunities awaiting.
“To win one’s joy through struggle is better than to yield to melancholy.”
I remember being poor, poor where I could not pay my bills, and I all my family could afford to eat were peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. My job paid 80 percent of our bills, so we had to decide which bills to pay with my paycheck. Talk about fear and pain.
Yet, through that pain, it pushed me to do more, be more than I ever thought possible. I decided to try washing windows for extra money. I felt fearful at the thought of doing something I knew nothing about. Fearful when approaching business owners and asking them if they wanted their windows cleaned when I had not idea how to do it. Finally, a food store with a set of windows that measured 30 feet high at the peak and 50 feet across offered me the job.
Talk about fearful — windows that reached 30 feet high — I decided to take the job, anyway.
I bought the equipment needed on a credit card: two squeegees, a wand, and a 25 foot extension pole. As the owner rang up my items, he recommended I don’t start a window cleaning business: “It’s very hard work and very competitive. I have ten guys a day come by asking to clean my windows.”
I thanked him for his words and then asked him if he could show me how to use the equipment. He gave me a five minute lesson and sent me on my way.
I arrived at the store at 3 a.m. and planned to work four hours before going to my full-time job. I borrowed the store ladder from the store’s crew stocking shelves because I realized my extension pole would not reach. It was foggy, dark and cold when I climbed that 12-foot, A-framed ladder to wet my first window with the scrubber. The ladder wobbled as I scrubbed the window. The lights from inside the store allowed me to see what I was doing. After I wet the highest window, I put the squeegee on the pole and got ready to take off the soap and water. I felt even more fear because the window was still almost 20 feet above me. I tried to pull the squeegee down the window and suddenly the squeegee fell off the pole. It fell toward my head. I ducked. It hit the ladder and banged off a window before going to the ground.
I was shaken but I climbed down the ladder to pick it up. That’s when an earthquake shook the building and the ladder. At that moment I had never felt that scared in all my life. I asked myself: Should I quit? Should I go back up the ladder? Fear told me to stay down and go home, back to bed. Instead, I pulled out my wallet and looked at a picture of my new wife and new child, the reason I put myself in this position. It was at that moment I knew what I must do. I put the wallet away, picked up the squeegee and climbed back up the ladder. The job took three days of working early mornings and evenings, but I finished and the manager paid me cash.
At that moment of completion, I felt more joy than I had in a long time. My confidence soared. I knew this cleaning work was the answer to our money problems. I loved the cleaning work. I went on to grow a business that serviced over 400 stores and 100 office buildings and we were never poor, again. My joy knew no bounds in that business.
It sounds ironic to feel fear, to go through that fear to feel joy. Going through the pain and fear actually moved me toward joy many times and avoiding the pain and fear of a decision or action caused me more pain and fear and sadness. Examples might be a crucial discussion with my wife or kids; learning something new; going into a new setting where I don’t know anyone; any changes in my life, expected or unexpected.
All of these and more raise my fear level in the beginning. I overcame many of my fears and went on to feel many more days of joy, and when I look back I recognized four strategies that helped me move through fear to attain joy: love, intuition, Kaizen and meditation.
Love is a powerful motivator when faced with fear. It can push people to lift cars off children; stand up to a bully; step toward work or job or activity feared but necessary.
Fear stops us dead in our tracks.
Love is the catalyst that propels us forward.
I remember listening to a Medal of Honor recipient speak at the Reagan Presidential Library about what the United States highest medal for bravery meant to him and his thoughts on his actions to receive the medal. He prefaced his remarks with this one statement:
“I was scared; more scared than I’d ever been in my life and the only thing the got me to move, to go save my fallen brothers in arms was love. I loved those guys and love is what got me to come out from my safe position and help them.”
When I think back on all the times I was afraid, very afraid, the biggest thing that really pushed me was my love for my family. I credit love as my motivation for my new business, my new jobs, my commitments. Love was and still is the most powerful motivator for me to move through my fears.
My wife and I recognize love is such a powerful inspiration through our marriage that we toast our glasses of wine “to love” because we know it is what keeps us going through our fears. I believe love to be the greatest motivator of all when it comes to committing to an action, an action that scares you.
Intuition is that “sixth sense,” that “gut feeling” about something or someone.
I have used my intuition to propel me forward through the stress and fear of a apprehensive action or crucial conversation. It turns out I’m not alone. Studies show even CEO’s of major companies will reflect on their intuition, their “gut” feeling when making decisions.
Malcolm Gladwell, author of many popular human behavior books such as Blink, The Tipping Point, and Outliers, researched how people can tap into their intuition to move them forward. Gladwell found that “A tremendous amount of expertise resides in the unconscious mind. These aren’t things we can necessarily describe, explain or map out.” He found the more experience people have in a field, the more trustworthy their intuition.
There are studies that believe intuition is a hoax, but the majority of science work finds intuition an effective tool for a person especially where people draw on their vast experience when making a decision.
I use my intuition to help me through that which I fear. For example, I self-published three books years ago. I knew nothing about publishing, but my instincts told me I needed to write these books, that my business experience in one field transferred to another. I learned everything I needed to publish the books and it took time, but my intuition helped me keep up my perseverance to complete the books. My intuition was correct and the books went on to sell thousands of copies and help many beginning business owners.
For some individuals, like myself, intuition is a preference and I lean on it. For example, I write in my journal each morning, three pages of what I call a “free write,” I write whatever comes to my mind. During that writing, ideas will come to me of what I might do that day. Some ideas make me anxious but most are mundane activities. It helps when I ask myself while I write “What would I do if I wasn’t afraid?” I’ll keep writing and then suggestions come to me that give me a tinge of fear, but I recognize the activity as a possible growth for me, and I write them on a “to do” list for that day. My mind’s idea must lead toward something that is positive in action, that propels me toward personal development, and doable that day or week.
The Kaizen strategy is one I use when change is inevitable or I want to instigate a change. Radical changes scares me. The Kaizen strategy requires me to breakdown what appears to be a monumental action or project into small more comfortable actions and thus lesson my fears.
Breaking fear down into manageable actions is noted in a book called One Small Step Can Change Your Life by Dr. Robert Maurer. A person can break fear down to small incremental actions that mitigate the fear inside, according to Maurer. The tasks are small building blocks for a more formidable goal such as publishing a novel.
Kaizen is an exercise created by the United States during the depressions of the 1930’s as part of the Training Within Industries program. Instead of looking to radical, more innovative change as a response to situation, the United States used Kaizen and developed small incremental changes and actions that could improve business during the depression.
The method worked so successfully that it was again applied to help rebuild Japan and Germany after the war.
The idea behind Kaizen is to calm the “fight or flight” mechanism in our brains and instead of looking at the catastrophe and helplessness, do small consistent actions that improve things over time.
Hmm, I wonder what I small actions I can do to help out during this pandemic?
The Kaizen strategy follows five strategies:
Asking simple questions (that lead to simple tasks and answers) to dispel fear
Take small actions that guarantee success
Solve small problems of the much larger problem or task
Reward myself or others
Recognize the small moments that everyone else ignores.
Another author offered similar advice in her memoir but said it a different way. The author Anne Lamott talks about breaking large unmanageable tasks into smaller, manageable parts. She tells the story from her childhood, in her book bird by bird, of her dad, her brother and her doing school work at the family kitchen table.
“My older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. . . he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books of birds. Immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said. “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
“Bird by bird,” I think of that phrase when I fear the vastness or seeming impossibility of a task. Then I start to break down the task into much smaller actions and reward myself when I complete each one, which inspires me to do the next small action.
Each day doing a small task that leads to the overall completion gets me passed the “flight” than “fight” mechanism. When I break down my fears into little actions, my fears also become small or disappear and I don’t mind doing the action. I’ll reward myself, as well.
Meditation and visualization
My mind’s thoughts can be like a conduit that fills me with energy or like a drain that siphons away my energy. It’s my choice. I decide which thoughts to hold on to and which ones to let go. It’s tough for me to let go of negative thoughts and allow the positive thoughts stay in my mind.
To help me I do meditation and visualization
Meditation is a way to calm my mind. It is a way to take back control of my mind that fills me with too many thoughts and feelings that cause me to not function at top efficiency. I’m stuck in my thoughts, and what I’ve learned is that I am not my thoughts. I have chosen to hold them in my mind, but through meditation I learn to let them go. Mediation clears my mind of a clutter of thoughts and feelings like cleaning up a messy room. I feel much less stress, fear, and sadness after I meditate.
For example, in today’s media, fear is a tool used to sway people toward an opinion. Fear gets my attention, but at the same time causes me anxiety when I’m constantly bombarded with negative, threatening, and depressing messages either in the news or social media. Mindfulness meditation helps me through those feelings.
When the Corona Virus pandemic started, I listened to every bit of news I could find. It made me feel afraid. The more I listened the worse my anxiety grew.
At one point my anxiety grew inside me where I found it hard to control. I checked my body signs. My heart rate jumped to over 120 bpm, my blood pressure elevated to 140/95.
I immediately started to listen to my meditation on the Headspace app. I repeated the mediation three times in a row. It took about a half hour. When I finished, I retook my vital signs. My heart rate dropped back to 75 bpm and my blood pressure was 120/70, again. I continue to use meditation daily and curtailed my news watching. There are many meditation apps that help. Calm is another good one and some medical providers offer it free for a year through their membership.
Meditation works for me and brings me more calm and joy.
The second mind technique is a proactive approach of visualization to make my mind work for me. In visualization I choose the words and thoughts and pictures that help me visualize my goal and overcome my fears. Visualization is a powerful tool used by many athletes and business people.
There are so many ways to use visualization to move passed fear and complete a goal and there are so many books on the subject to help people get there.
Along with these books, I’ve looked at a few metaphysical books that discuss the manifestation of our thoughts and visualizations and while I believe my thoughts do help with crystalizing my goals, I’m also of the belief in a little “destiny.”
A few times I’ve visualized something I wanted and really pushed for it only to see it not come to fruition; however, some other opportunity happened at the same time and all the doors opened for me in that direction. I reflected back later in my life and realized that had the other goal actually manifested itself, I would be in worse shape than I am today.
I once used a Dream Journal where I wrote out my dream in descriptive detail and glued a picture next to the words. It helped me to make many of these dreams come true. My Dream Journal page would consist of what I wanted; a detailed description of the want; a picture gave me a concrete visual and small steps I would take to make each dream a reality.
For me simple visualization now starts with my daily journal writing. I create my day, my goals — long term and short term, my worlds and characters for stories and thoughts in a three-page free write. This visualizing and freewriting started after I studied The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. The book helped change my way of looking at my creative side and helped me visualize what I want. Somehow visualizing my ideas consistently and then writing them down helps me to see the goal materialize.
There are so many ways to create a dream or goal strategy to help lift me to where I want to be, which is higher degrees of joy in my life.
I have used the Franklin Planner where you reflect on values, missions, and roles before deciding on goals. I have used a journal where each page was a dream / goal I wanted to accomplish with details and a visual to help keep me focused.
The one problem I had with my planning and dreaming is my scattered mind. I have so many ideas I want to see accomplished that putting energy into all of them — a little each day — felt like me trying to juggle plates in the air. It was stressful and took my mind in too many directions. When I reflect back on my life, I have come to realize that the goals and dreams I completed happened because I focused only on that one dream/goal and made that one a reality. Maybe that’s just my personality. My parents and wife notice I always finish one food on my plate first before I eat something else.
I’m a visual person. I need to see it in front of me to be able to act on the goal, so I’m looking at making my computer’s homepage a dream board, so when I open my computer it’s the first thing I see. I’m looking now a dream board with one major goal laid out on card stock or the computer. A dream board has three options: Stability (finance/job), social (friends, family, relationships, or personal (personal development, fitness and health). Choose one option when creating a board. There are so many ways to create a dream board. I’m going to use Moodboard or Canva for my online dream board. When I finish it I’ll drag it to my homepage.
Along the same topic of visualization but from another approach is Susan Jeffers’ book titled Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. A fascinating look at overcoming fears the stifle us and keep us from our goals. She encourages readers to not play victim to their circumstances and to take control of your life — total control.
Jeffers mentions seven definitions of taking responsibility:
Never blame anyone else for anything you are being, doing, having or feeling.
Be aware of the multitude of choices you have in a given situation
Jeffers’ vocabulary suggestions help me move from a place of pain to a place of power. When I find myself repeating words from the Pain List, I consciously work to change the wording in my head to the Power List. I hear coaches from the bench yell their own Power Words to players on the court or field. I hear business executives and entrepreneurs use a Power Word list with themselves or their workers. Words have power to me and it’s so easy to fall prey to the negative ones. I always must be vigilant in choosing the words that move me away from fear and pain.
“Whenever you are not taking responsibility [for your life] you put yourself in a position of pain and hence decrease your ability to handle the fear in your life.”
Susan Jeffers, Ph.D.
I know there are more possible ways to work through fear to get to joy: goal setting, determination, money, survival, etc. but love, intuition, Kaizen, and meditation/ visualization to be the most successful for me to move past my fears toward better personal growth, and of these four the greatest is love.
My most recent career as a Work Experience teacher at a local high school was everything I wanted in a job. I helped students transition to the world of work and helped them with career choices.
Vocational work has always interested me and this teaching job gave me one-on-one student interaction and community connection. I felt like a “kid in a candy store.” I created programs to help students with career choices, work protocols, and emotional intelligence. My work day filled with students, business and school leadership communication, and program development.
Each day I felt euphoric and I felt so engaged in the program’s development that one day I looked up from my desk to see a pair of students horsing around outside my window. I asked someone, “What are those students doing out of class?” The person stared back at me and replied, “School has been out for an hour.”
I often lost track of my time like that because I felt so engaged in my work. I was challenged, but not too challenged. If my tasks grew to be too much at that moment I backed off to where it felt more palpable yet not boring.
These states of time where I feel this strong interest in what I do and at the same time feel capable to handle the challenge is sometimes called Flow.
Flow is the mind state where I feel so involved in an activity that I lose tract of time. Flow gives me a sense of extreme focus on a task where I’m so engaged with no sense of anxiety or boredom. Where working becomes almost euphoric.
“There’s this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback,” Csikszentmihalyi said in a 2004 Ted Talk.
The key to flow is finding that “Sweet spot” of challenge and interest, to feel “euphoria” or joy in activities or subjects or people that interest me. If the activity or mental challenge is beyond the ability or preference or interest, anxiety or high stress may ensue. If the activity or mental challenge is below the ability or preference or interest, then boredom may ensue. The trick is to find the right activity where my abilities are equal to the challenge and maybe a little harder, pushing myself to new levels of growth and understanding, then Flow is possible.
“The manifestation of happiness takes a committed effort.”
I might be highly intrigued in a subject matter, but if engagement is too high a level too soon, I may just develop high anxiety. This happened to a friend of mine who loved a his career as a coach and felt so engaged and alive but reached a high level quickly in his profession. He was the youngest to reach that level. He shared his stress and anxiety with me when he took the job. He chalked it up to Imposter Syndrome, but as time passed the stress did not get better and actually worsened to a point he took a step back.
The point being, sometimes Flow can lead to too much, too fast. For example the talented, passionate athlete that goes from high school to the pros without more maturation. Sometimes there are inherent growth that needs to happen before another level is attained.
A way that helped me find Flow in my daily life
There was a time when life bombarded me with responsibilities, jobs, data inputs from social media, the news, friends. I tried to be everything to everyone and in the process lost sight of who I am. I needed to step back from all the noise and reflect back on what made me feel “in the zone” of life that gave me more joy. That’s when I came across the Seven Stories Exercise.
The exercise is meant for people to find what they enjoy most in life, what skills they prefer to use, and find ways of incorporating it in their work life.
The Seven Story Exercise
The exercise is about examining those life experiences that felt satisfying and enjoyable and maybe even accomplished. Money may or may not have been involved. The age does not matter either. Some of my best experiences came when I was a child or young adult before I “tweeked” my personality to fit the real world.
First part of the exercise
First, make of list of 20 experiences in life that felt enjoyable or accomplished or fun . . . maybe even joyful, maybe even in a Flow state. List each activity in a five to seven word phrase (not just a word or two.) This part of the exercise could take some time, maybe even a week or more.
For example, here are some phrases from my list of 20: “created a bowling alley in a garage;” “Worked hard to win a contest by collecting the most coupons.” “Developed a lemonade stand that employed three kids;” “Started a club team for kids;” “Wrote and published three books about window cleaning;” “Helped start a window cleaning association;” “Wrote and directed a play with neighborhood kids.” The list goes on until I had 20 experiences.
Next, select the top seven experiences. Write a paragraph or two explaining the action details with strong verbs about the experience.
Here is what I would write about that bowling business experience.
When I was 10 years old, my friend Bobby and I wanted to earn some money. Bobby even at 10 years old was an expert bowler (his dad managed a bowling alley.) I came up with the idea of creating three bowling lanes in his garage using the plastic pins and balls. Every kid on the block had one back then. We decided to hold it the next Saturday. During school, I couldn’t concentrate. All I could think about was how to organize and create a smooth running bowling alley. I felt excited when I discovered a solution to a problem of rolling the balls back to the customers. We would use grape stakes used for fencing back then. It worked perfect. Bobby would keep score, since he knew how. I would reset the pins.
Kids came from blocks around to play in our bowling alley. We charged a nickle a game and the business was nonstop. The day flew by. I loved the physical work of setting up pins while talking with the players. I never felt happier. The thing was, we only wanted to do this event once, then it got boring, but it was exciting and we made money.
Finally, once the paragraphs are written, ask the following questions about each experience;
What was the main accomplishment? make money
What about it was most enjoyable? Creating a business from scratch
Activities liked that were done best? Figuring out how to make it run like a business
What was the key motivator? Money
What led up to the involvement? My innovation
What was the relationship with others? Leader
What was the environment like? Outdoors
What was the subject matter? Game
I did this with all seven experiences. I wrote out the answers.
What I found was there were key activities that put me in a state of Flow.
In a nutshell for me, I found three areas that stood out for me to feel flow:
First, I found creativity of any kind helps put in a state of Flow. It doesn’t matter if the project is big or small, takes a day or takes a lifetime. It could be creating a book, an association, a team, a program. It doesn’t matter. I must use creativity to truly feel flow.
Second, I found the interaction and connection with people must be part of equation –whether it’s for five minutes or a lifetime. I need to feel connected to others. If I don’t I’ll go looking for it to help me enjoin my creative state. There is no just me. There is me and those that surround me. People must be part of my engagement to enter a state of Flow.
Finally, Of the activities I jotted down, not one of them was the same. Each activity was innovative and different and had an interest span to the point the project or activity or creation was complete and did not need me anymore. What I discovered was that which I haven’t done before or had never been done before I found exhilarating. When the project became routine, I lost interest. Routine is my “kryptonite.” It saps my spirit of energy and joy. I need to watch out for “kryptonite” activities.
I feel much more confident now that I have reviewed what gives me Flow and more importantly what helps bring me joy.
My doctor called me to find out what’s going on with my life after my less-than-desirable lab results crossed his desk.
His call came at a great time. I felt down. I’d been feeling like an empty bucket which was only getting filled up with other people’s to-do lists. I’m good at helping others with their frustrations, stressors, and busywork. While doing that I let go of who I am — a creative soul that needs to create — the effect of which caused more emptiness in me.
So, after my conversation with my doctor I pondered how can I maintain my creative needs and still be there for people?
After a little research I fell upon a book that helped me. It turns out there are simple ways of helping people that can also help me without sucking my spirit. In the book titled How Full Is Your Bucket? authors Tom Rath and Donald Clifton researched ways people can feel good about themselves and it has a lot to do with helping others. They called it “filling your bucket.”
Merrill Lundgreen was the first person to implement this idea of “filling the bucket.” His concept is based on the thought that everyone has an invisible bucket that holds his or her feelings. If the bucket is empty, people feel sad. If it is full, they are happy. The term applies to everyone. We all need to feel that fullness of life.
Research on what fills people’s buckets was conducted with interviews with over 4000 people. Rath and Clifton filtered through the interviewees responses and narrowed down the answers into five way that filled a person’s bucket and increased that person’s wellness to a more positive outlook on life and increased productivity at work and home. Using these strategies on a consistent basis helped “fill a person’s bucket” and feel better about oneself and life which, in turn, and can help one feel better about themselves.
Bucket dipping can take many forms, but most often comes as negative comments, rudeness, unkindness — I can think of more damaging actions, but I will stop at the more common actions.
Personally, each time I feel a negativity from another person, it sinks my spirit. I can feel myself putting up my personal defenses and hiding who I am as a person, so I can’t be hurt. Who needs unkindness, unless one feels that’s what they deserve in life.
Other people that I meet I can sense their kindness and I find myself opening up to them in ways that feel refreshing, invigorating, and “bucket filling.”
I could stay in conversation with a “bucket dipper,” but personally, I find that difficult. I do avoid my first reaction of calling them an asshole. Instead my response is to politely smile and walk away.
Now, I seek out more acquaintances that speak in positive tones. They lift me up. They may not be the “in” crowd but being around them lifts my spirits. Eventually, I hope to consider them my friends.
Facebook empties my bucket. With the U.S. elections coming, my eyes wearied of all the mudslinging, negativity, and misinformation. Even with my optimistic responses, trying to “fill peoples’ buckets” I felt my own wellness draining. So, I avoid all the social media platforms except Quora. My wellness has improved dramatically.
Bucket-Filling Strategy No. 2: Shine a Light on What is Right
It’s easy for me to look at what is not right in the world, but that drags me down. I started commenting on what is good in the world. Even with the Corona virus and our isolation, there is still good when I look for it. My feeling now is that this virus will push us to change in ways for the better: working more from home, different ways of teaching school, more eating at home with families. I could go on. My goal is not to speak negatively about another person, myself, or a situation, but to find a positive. The book recommends the readers keep score of negative and positive comments we say during the day. I have good and bad days but I’m getting better with my word choices.
Being positive or kind to a person may encourage he or she to be positive or kind with someone else and those actions may encourage other actions, and so on. Positivity can take many forms: a smile, eye contact, a wave, kind words, kind actions, and so on.
Bucket-Filling Strategy No. 3: Make Best Friends
This one is where I need the most help. All my good friends are miles away, so I can’t wallow in what I can’t have, I must create a new social group. This isn’t like creating art, poetry or music. People are fickle and fearful sometimes. Psychologist Ed Diener found “the happiest people have high quality social relationships and that lonely people suffer psychologically.”
So, it is a goal to improve my social relationships, but how do I develop new high quality social relationships. At work, school, neighborhood?
So far, I like the Meetup app. It’s not a dating app, but a way to meet people with similar interests. I decided to start my own Meetup for writing and met new people. I joined other Meetup groups and hope to connect with others after the pandemic. I belong to Rotary Club and met new people when I participated in the club activities. Nothing happened when I just went to meetings.
The book recommends start with remembering people’s names. Wow, do I fail in that area. I always hail people by saying, “Hey buddy,” “There you are,” “Good to see you,” “Hi there.” Notice I never used anyone’s name. Sometimes people call me on it and ask, “What’s my name?” Those people are not my friends.
I say remembering names is not my gift, but that’s no excuse not to learn. After reading “How Full is Your Bucket? I make more effort to use people names in my conversation.
I also work a regular “bucket filling” into people I meet to develop stronger ties. “friendships are unlikely to survive let alone thrive without regular bucket filling.”
Bucket-Filling Strategy No. 4: Give Unexpectedly
A Gallup Poll found that “the vast majority of people prefer gifts that are unexpected. Something about the element of surprise fills another person’s bucket and it doesn’t have to be a big surprise to be special.
Expected gifts fill our buckets, too, but the unexpected gift does it a little bit more.
This is an activity that really energizes me as I love to create new ways of interacting with others in a surprising manner.
Bucket-Filling Strategy No. 5: Reverse the Golden Rule
Instead of telling myself, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” I need to tell myself, “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.” What I want from a person’s interaction may be different from what they want or need. I know individuals that feel humiliated when praised in front of a large group. It’s not a “bucket filler” for them. Instead, they enjoy praise one on one with someone. Some people like joking around with conversations others prefer more serious and thought-provoking ones. I need to recognize the other person’s needs.
What I learned from all this is that I don’t have to sacrifice great swaths of time that I crave to be creative, but I can offer short, meaningful interactions that makes everyone feel better, including me. People may disagree with this philosophy but I’m going to give it a try.
I think the next time my doctor calls, my lab results will be much improved.
I traveled to Sequoia National Park in California, USA to camp under the canopy of the giant Sequoias and redwood trees. I was seeking enjoyment in a peaceful environment, and though I found the experience satisfying, my true enjoyment came through the conversations with the friends with me.
This realization brought me back to where do people find joy? Yes, the camping experience was enjoyable, but my conversations with a Rotarian from my club and his family at their campsite that really was the highlight to that enjoyment.
I started wondering about how my interactions with people can fill my spirit with so much joy as I hiked back to my own campsite. I was reminded of a Robert Heinlein novel where the character and a companion constantly transported to different times and places putting them positions where they must learn to survive and the two were always together talking. I remember one line that the main character said that has always stuck with me years later. He said he didn’t care where or what he was doing in his life — he would wash dishes for eternity — as long as his companion was there by his side. He felt just enjoyment in her present and conversation.
I wondered about conversation and companionship back at my own camp sitting alone next to a warm campfire with the scent of forest pine and campfire smoke heavy in the air. I marveled at all the towering sequoias around me and listened to the silence, but there was a hollowness in the silence. I had my book, food, fire, and solitude, but no joy — peace, yes, but no joy.
The Sequoia trees around me, majestic, towering and massive, look so independent, but according to the latest research, even trees communicate connecting root systems and working together to their help their genus survive. One study in British Columbia found on tree connected to 48 others nearby.
It turns out there is compelling evidence to proves the link between more frequent and deeper social interactions and my well-being — which I relate to joy. According to the findings reported by three researchers from the University of Davis in California, USA and the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. In a report titled Is Well-Being Associated with the Quantity and Quality of Social Interactions? researchers Jessie Sun, Kelci Harris, and Simine Vazire explore the elements that what makes people feel good in people interaction and does quiet time or social time have more benefit. Researchers explored people interactions on different levels and found a person’s well being was raised on almost all social interactions, even the “cocktail conversations,” what I call fake conversations. The researchers also found even introverts that dislike large gatherings still felt a higher well being after these gatherings.
“Avoid trifling conversation.”
Benjamin Franklin from the “Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin”
I need to connect more to people.
I wondered about which conversations brought me the most enjoyment in life. I know it’s different for everyone, but that day in the Sequoias sitting around a campfire drinking beer, the conversations filled my enjoyment “bucket.” I decided I needed to improve my conversation skills, to step out of my comfort zone more and risk words that flowed off my tongue — which can be dangerous as my mouth usually usually gets ahead of my brain and I don’t realize that until my wife points it out to me later. She’s saved with thinking things through before actually putting voice to words . . . maybe woman are blessed that way.
I decided for myself conversation must be a topic where I can connect with others and that connection can run the gamut from jobs, careers, families, loves, health, hobbies, experiences, and then deepen the conversation to more personal stuff, but that’s only the start. There still has to feel like a true connection and not a forced connection.
It helps to add a dash of humor, but I’m out of luck in that skill: I’m not funny. The only time people laugh at something I say is when I’m trying to be serious, and as they sit giggling at my candor, I say in all honesty, “I’m serious” and they laugh even more.
“Confidence does more to make conversation than wit.”
Where do I find such people?
I realize I don’t have to travel to find these conversations. I would be just going about my routine day and the right person with the right conversation can lift my spirits. I need more of these people in my life; I need to encourage these conversations. I need to have courage to find these people to have these conversations.
Personally, I start with people I already know as acquaintances. I push myself to offer more conversation at a deeper level and see how people respond. I make the first move in talking about values, or hobbies, or enjoyable activities. I step out of my routine, fake, or “cocktail” conversation mode. I take chances. Some people just nod their heads, but sometimes I hit a spark of excitement in them and I attempt to feed that enthusiasm with my own. I might find a person who has similar values, interests, and quirks or I might not.
Are the people I interact with happy people?
One study found that a person’s happiness depends on the happiness of people they connect with. I believe it. One of my best friends, who recently passed away, was someone who always had a smile on his face when we talked. It was a genuine friendly smile. He enjoyed his life and shared his time in service to others. The funny quirk was we had opposite views on politics but that didn’t matter. We laughed and joked about it. Our conversations were always uplifting, genuine, and engaging. It didn’t matter where we were or what we were doing. He was always joyous and I always came away from our conversations uplifted.
Happiness can be infectious and lift my spirit while moody people suck my soul. Their body language and conversation say depressing emotions. They don’t purposely do that. It’s just their personality. Some people love to be moody and no matter how much sunshine I try to bring to the environment they are like a black hole sucking it all up.
I need to distance myself from these environments. To me they can have tendencies of letting me do all the talking, They can be sarcastic, negative, mistake catchers, talk negatively about others behind their backs yet still maintain a fake smile in fake conversations. Yuck! Sadly, Facebook has become a Black Hole in my life.
Despite the “black holes” in life, I need to explore the human spirits that surround me. There are many “shining stars” in my community and stepping out my door to experience these people will take a little courage on my part. I need to put myself out there in conversation and activity. I need to make sure I’m not a “black hole” sucking peoples’ energy. I need to seek out new and old acquaintances to find my people that “get me.” I need to learn better conversation techniques.
Okay, it might feel a bit nerdy to study how to have meaningful conversations, but my parents, teachers and mentors never really taught me how to have a great conversation, and the people around me were not the best role models, anyway. So, I researched online different articles about conversation. There were some surprisingly simple steps I could do to improve my conversations without being fake. I found these articles interesting:
I will practice and purposefully expand my contacts of meaningful-conversation at least once a week. I will avoid being a “black hole” myself to other people and find even a glimmer of optimism in the present moment.
“Talk about Feelings Not Facts, the only real conduit to deeper conversations.”
The School of Life
I will make mistakes, and that’s okay. In the long run I know I will succeed, and I might experience joys I never thought possible at the most unusual time and in a most unusual place with people I never would have met had I not risked a deep meaningful conversation.