Throughout evolution humans have become highly attuned to danger and threats. For millennia it was survival of the most cautious. Optimists, who weren’t so worried about that rustle in the bushes, would get eaten by the sabre-toothed tiger hiding in the bushes, while the more cautious would run away and be able to pass on their more cautious genes.
Today we have evolved to have heavily biased brains. Despite the absence of sabre-tooth tigers or marauding mammoths, we are still prone to worry and we typically place possible threats a long way ahead of fun, frivolous things like joy.
For those of us who sit in soft chairs, drinking clean water, with the air-con set at a very comfortable 24 degrees, there is in reality, very little to worry about. We are the safest we have ever been. We could be celebrating our remarkable prosperity, our incredibly long life expectancy or humankind’s genius in inventing the spacehopper, but we don’t do any of that.
Instead we turn on the news and seek out all sorts of things to worry about. There we discover a steady stream of disasters and countless things to be alarmed and outraged by. Of course, if that cautionary part of our brain isn’t already stimulated enough, we might put on a documentary about a serial killer. Then, after bingeing all ten episodes, we may read an article about the dangers of screen time and descend into yet more consternation.
Many of us have become hooked into worry. It’s all over the media, it’s filling up our feeds and it’s constantly working its way around and around our heads. It’s seems we’re always worrying. What would we even do if we weren’t worrying?
A stress-free alternative to contemplating all the crap that could possibly go wrong.
You could be having fun. I know, it sounds a little crazy. Perhaps it seems a little naughty or just wildly unrealistic. After all, isn’t fun reserved for children and eccentric billionaires with long, pointy yachts?
Well… no. Ordinary, non-billionaire adults can have fun too. Some of us have just become a little disconnected from fun and joy, whilst trying to be all responsible and grown-up. Sadly, we’ve got out of the habit or we’ve shoved all this wonderfully enriching, life-affirming stuff to the end of our to-do lists, as we try to sort out all the annoying, stressful head-wrecking things first.
If you feel you need some serious, grown-up reason to engage in fun, consider this. Research has shown laughter reduces levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine while increasing health-enhancing hormones (such as endorphins), neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin and infection-fighting antibodies. No joke – laughter is the best medicine.
To enhance your joy to worry ratio, it may be helpful to first ask, what are the moments you really live for? What brings a big stupid grin to your face? What last caused you to break out in a happy dance? When do you completely lose track of time, because you were so absorbed doing something you absolutely love?
For our own good, it is important we put these things first and make them non-negotiable. We must rediscover how to play and be on constant lookout for opportunities to take life a little less seriously. Sure, you could swim laps… or you could hold a pool pony jousting tournament. You could bake gluten free bran muffins… or you could make a volcano cake. What is your inner child screaming out for?
While you may have carefully cultivated a reputation as a misanthropic doom-dweller, it’s perfectly permissible to shake it up a bit. Robert Smith of The Cure is considered the world’s preeminent goth, yet even he found enough joy and optimism after a wretched week to apply some bright red lippy and sing Friday, I’m in love. By breaking free our normal patterns, it is entirely possible to discover such lightness of being.
Train your brain to become more optimistic, joyful and resilient
Albert Schweitzer, a German physician and Nobel Peace Prize winner, was factually incorrect when he said “happiness is the only thing that multiplies when you share it.” Measles also multiplies when you share it… but the basic gist of his statement was right.
Spending time with others is exceptionally good for us, because as humans we are hard-wired for connection. When with friends, we are statistically likely to spend far more time actually rolling on the floor laughing, than we are when sitting by ourselves responding ‘ROFL’ to social media posts. The simple act of having a laugh with friends has a host of beneficial qualities and can help shift things energetically when we are feeling shut off.
In addition to making time for friends, it is also helpful to spend just a few minutes a day practising gratitude. Each day, simply write down what you are grateful for. Or even better, tell a friend. Pretty soon, your mind will be on the lookout for all the good things in life, rather than constantly hooking in to what’s wrong with the world. This very simple technique has been shown to boost optimism and can in turn bolster your psychological resilience.
By practising mindfulness, we can also strengthen our connection with feelings of joy, wonder and awe. Mindfulness allows us to be present and fully in the moment. Rather than having our minds gallop off to some other stressful place, through mindfulness we can truly experience and appreciate what is right in front of us.
As well as seeking to boost our joy, we can examine what’s getting in the way of it. What are your killjoys? What is deflating your tyres and raining on your parade? Some changes will be small, like switching over from the serial killer documentary to a comedy. Others may be bigger and require us to consult our personal values, before taking action in line with them. Doing so can lift us out of well-worn ruts and allow us to move forward in a far more joyful, optimistic manner.
When put together all these skills have a very powerful protective force. They make us more psychologically resilient and less susceptible to experiencing common mental health conditions. They equip us to successfully navigate through all those wearisome, demanding and difficult bits. Best of all, they allow us to appreciate the true beauty of our one precious life.
5 seriously simple tips to boost you joy.