Reflecting on Past Joys to Increase Current Joy

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.

Joy is euphoric, a deep sense of contentment, peace yet exhilaration and delight. It’s a level far beyond the surface-type happiness. 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 reaction to something said, done or seen.

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.

The Seven Stories Exercise

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.

For Example

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

Find “Flow” to Find Joy

A Flow state can happen with any activity.
Photo by Wellington Cunha on

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.

It was coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1975, in his groundbreaking book Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience. Flow is a way to feel a sense of joy in an activity. I’m not bored; I’m not nervous; I’m “in the zone.”

“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.”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

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.

I’m learning more about how to reach a state of
Flow by the manifestations of these other feelings. .

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.

Peace, Love, Joy