“Optimize for joy” was the advice my friend gave me when I decided to leave the job that almost killed me. I had been striving for title, money and status, trying to prove my worth to myself. But when I resigned, I committed to focusing on becoming the person I wanted to be and living a life worth living. I studied books, listened to lectures, ran and meditated and traveled. Balance entered my life, and I treasure my time with my daughter, travelling and being with friends, as well as teaching and writing.
Yesterday I was listening to Christopher Hitchins’ eloquent revising the ten commandments into three*, and I decided to forge my own guidelines for living joyfully. The goal is to increase your joy and also to increase the joy of people around you. Happiness is not a zero-sum game. These uncommandments are based on a wide variety of sources, but most heavily drawn from Marshal Rosenberg and Brene Brown’s work, mixed with Buddhism and Lean Startup. You work with what you know.
- No one should command you, including you.
“Should” and “commandments” are constricting and depressing. Consider experiments, explorations and “works for me, so more of that.” As the wise Stuart Smalley once said “Stop shoulding all over yourself.”
- Instead of resolving, try experimenting.
We go on a diet, we fail, we quit. We resolve to quit smoking, we smoke, we give up. We are always deciding to stop or start or change… and it collapses and then we feel bad. At least that’s how I was doing it.
Instead, try setting up a time-bound experiment, and evaluate if it increases or decreases your joy and well being. For example, instead of “going on a diet,” try, “I’ll give up wheat for two weeks.” By making it simple, narrowly focused with a clear end point, it’s easier to commit to. And the end of it, you can evaluate if you feel happier, and if the initial loss of the pleasure has worthwhile positive effects.
- Forgive yourself while staying on track.
In yoga, guided mediation always include the phrase “if you find your mind wandering off, do not become mad at yourself, but gently return to your breathing.” That sums up how to approach all efforts. If you ate a cake after dinner, don’t become angry, but gently return to your effort to eat more healthily. Gentle, forgiving persistence seems to work better than recriminations and punishments for me.
- Respect that you are a body, a mind, a spirit and a heart.
Often when we get busy, work demands we give all from just one part of ourselves. For me, and probably you, it’s our minds, chasing emails and knocking out the powerpoints. But to be happy, we must move our bodies, care for our emotional well-being, and find meaning as well as work the brain.
Each day, do a check in with all four aspects of yourself. Does body need a run? Need a massage? Does heart need to connect with a friend? Or a good cry or laugh at the movies? Does spirit need to sit quietly in nature and commune, or do some work for a charity? And poor, overworked mind. Does mind need to sit quietly and attend to breathing, or is it hungry for Aristotle’s Poetics? Get in the habit of checking in with yourself, and you can avoid a number of troubles from back problems and misplaced friendships.
- Check your assumptions and habits.
I had lunch with a friend the other day, one with whom I have killed many a bottle of red. And he told me he stopped drinking during the week. He had the habit of sharing a bottle of wine every night with his wife. And one day, he wondered if that was a good way to live, and tried out not drinking during the week. And then discovered he had significantly more energy. Suddenly it was easier to help his kids with homework, easier to get into work, easy to have hard conversations as well as pleasant ones.
What things do you do just because you do it that way? Can you experiment with doing something different, to discover if it really increases your joy?
- Don’t spend time with people who deplete you, hold tight to those who nourish you.
We all have those friends, those folks we see and afterwords we need to lay down. Perhaps they aren’t friends. Perhaps we don’t really need to see them.
We all have those people who we met and they were so wonderful, but you know, you get busy and the week is crazy and following up just fell off your radar: don’t let that happen.
I have a trick for making sure my life is full of wonderful people. When I meet someone who I really connect with, I write their name on the window above my desk. I also put in friends I adore and haven’t seen in awhile. That way when I lean back and stretch, there they are, reminding me I want to call them. I want to have coffee with them. I want them in my life.
- Express gratitude regularly. Daily. Hourly.
Every single study will tell you to do this if you want to be happy. And it works. It just works.
But as well, when you express gratitude to another human, you connect to them meaningfully, and you are less alone. They are less alone.
- Judging decreases happiness.
Sure, you might get a quick ego lift when you see a slovenly coworker or a later-than-thou mom come to pick up her kids, and think “well, I’m better than that!” But when you judge others, you get in the habit of judging. Then you start judging yourself. You start getting paranoid about who is judging you. And bang: head full of weasels screaming about how awful the world is and how you are no one to judge since you are awful and so on. Better to not go there.
As well, judging kill the dialog. When you judge someone, it’s easy to turn off your ears. But if someone says something outrageous, instead of judging, ask yourself “why are they doing that?” Then ask them, tell me more about that? You may find out this “bad person” is confused, ill-informed, or suffering and lashing out. Or maybe you just heard them incorrectly. Asking for clarification can lead to connection, and that will increase both of your joy.
- Compassion is for everyone, including you.
Empathy is when you can feel what another is feeling. Compassion is empathy with a action item. Do not just feel; act with loving kindness. For years I worked in the design profession, where they are proud of the empathy they have for the end users of the product they make. But those designers who were so concerns for the happiness of their users would turn around and denigrate their coworkers as stupid or lacking vision — especially those running the business. When I moved into the product management side, I saw the tremendous pressure business put on those folks, and the suffering it caused to be disrespected by their coworkers.
It was easy to have no compassion for those we don’t understand. But just like when we stop judging, once you work to understand those around you, you can offer them support and solace. Every human is worthy of your compassion. Including you.
Brene Brown tells of a story where her preteen daughter suddenly starts saying she’s fat and ugly. She wonders where that behavior came from, until she sees her daughter looking into her bedroom, where Brene herself is in the mirror complaining she’s got to lose weight because she look like cr*p. At that moment she decided to stop judging herself, and forgive herself her foibles.
We do not have the resources to give to others unless we start by being kind to ourselves. Do it to model self-compassion to your children or do it just because it increases your joy.
I had two more items, but realized they both were results of this simple practice that will do so much for you. One was nurture mindfulness. Often we have negative emotions, frequently caused by our bodies — hormones, sleep loss and light can all trigger bad feelings. and your brain, just trying to be helpful will explain it to you, brings up your mean boss and short deadlines, and then you feel worse. But if you meditate, you become aware of the feelings as a conscious observer, and your brain doesn’t try to explain them. You can just sit with your emotions, and observe them, and let them fall away. And that ability to let bad feelings fall away follows you into other parts of your life, so the annoying bits and pieces don’t get you down as much.
The second item was to fill your well. By your well, I mean your reserves of energy and joy. So much in life will deplete our reserves: crowds for introverts, noise of the quiet people, lines for the impatient and so on. But when you meditate, it’s a little time just for you to caretake and find peace.
So the tenth uncommandment is Meditate. Considering trying it for a week.
I was barely able to cram this laundry list of things that have helped me into ten. I hope one helps someone sometimes have less misery and more joy.
Buddha said it best: Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. We can chose how we live in this world.
*Yes, I am an atheist. But that doesn’t mean I am not deeply concerned about how to live an ethical life, nor respectful of wisdom coming out of religious traditions.