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.
Try the Seven Story Exercise.
Peace, Joy, Love