As a young child I was a joy-seeking missile. I lived for it. It was pretty much all I cared about. There was playing with puppy dogs joy. There was running under the sprinkler joy. There was (momentary) attempting to fly joy. There was hearing the cool siren noise of the ambulance joy. Joy was everywhere and I simply couldn’t get enough.
So, what happened?
When I attended school all this stuff started popping up to get in the way of joy. One day a policeman came into our classroom and taught us a whole lot of really scary stories about “stranger danger”. Another day a man from the bank came in and told us why we should lock away all our shiny coins in a bank vault instead of instantly trading them for sugary treats. Frequently, after attempting to extract a slither of joy from a boring classroom situation, my friends and I would be sent on an “emu parade”, which sounds quite fun but is really just teacher code for having to pick up litter.
Gradually, all those boring, joyless adults wore me down. I became wary of strangers. I put my precious pocket money in the bank. I did less stuff that would end up with me having to participate in a stupid emu parade. I was becoming responsible.
Eventually, my voice went squeaky, my skin broke out in spots and I became a teenager. This necessitated that I immediately cease taking true joy in most things and instead cultivate a cool, detached demeanour, whilst paying careful consideration to what would make me less punchable. Trying to be cool and joyous simultaneously was a very difficult task. At my school, some kids took joy in arson, while some took joy in instigating impromptu games of stacks-on*. The number of socially acceptable joy-bringing activities were however limited, with the cool police ready to pounce upon anyone who broke the many unwritten rules.
As I got older, the joy that I could have after school was also eroded. Suddenly there weren’t six straight hours to do as I please. When I was in year nine, the owner of the local McDonalds was invited into the school to extoll the benefits of getting an after-school job, flipping burgers for $4.70 an hour. While I decided against this generous arrangement, the teachers began loading on the homework. They went to great lengths to steal my joy, eventually making me try to figure out calculus and something written over 600 years ago by a guy named Chaucer.
The path to joy had also became more complex. Suddenly it became apparent that to have joy you had to have a car; and if you wanted that trusty automobile to go anywhere you had to fill it up with petrol; and to buy petrol you had to have money; and to have money you had to flip burgers for the clown. I continued catching the bus.
In year twelve, we were informed that all joy should be put on hold. This was not the time for tomfoolery, jig-acting or japes (I borrowed that last word from Chaucer). It was time to knuckle down, be serious and stress out about exams. Apparently, getting the right mark would affect THE REST OF OUR LIVES.
Diligently, I put my joy on hold and celebrated my 18th birthday by doing an HSC English exam. Eventually I made it through this joyless experience, only to spend the next decade or so dreaming that I still had one big test to go.
Following the expected path, I went to university, bought a horrible ill-fitting suit and found myself a job. Unfortunately, it paid about the same as flipping burgers for the clown and required me to spend 60+ hours a week stuck in an office or commuting. I didn’t have much time or energy for joy. I was rushing around just to fit in the stuff that HAD to be done. As I reached adulthood, the responsibilities kept mounting and this exhausting ‘to do’ list just kept on getting longer.
I was all grown up. I had done all the sensible, responsible things I was supposed to do. But it wasn’t much fun. In fact, it was pretty sucky. I really wanted my joy back.
I took some time to think about where it had all gone wrong and what I could do to have more joy in my life. This is what I came up with.
1. It might be time to stop worrying quite so much about stranger danger.
While I appreciate the police were probably just doing their best to protect a bunch of six-year-olds, Constable Care’s terrifying scare campaign left me extremely wary of other people. Over the years however, I came to theorise that most strangers were actually nice and had minimal interest in kidnapping me.
This theory was put to the test in my twenties, when I was on holiday, riding my bike around Fiji. Coming down a road, I came across a large group of muscular machete-carrying men, with their arms all stretched out wide to prevent me from passing. While part of my brain processed the possibility that they wanted to rob me and cut me into small pieces, for some reason I decided not to do a rapid U-turn and pedal off in the other direction. It turns out their intentions were far friendlier. They were returning from a day of cutting down coconuts and just didn’t want me to go by without first stopping for a chat. Before I knew it, I was invited to join their rugby team and ended up having an absolutely amazing time with them.
I’m not suggesting that you don’t use your judgement (not all groups of knife wielding men are quite so charming), however approaching the world with a friendly, open manner can often spark some beautiful moments of joy. If we treat everyone with fear and suspicion, we inevitably miss out on the best of humanity.
2. There’s no joy in being cool
Research tells us that oldies with deep wrinkles, dodgy hips and daggy hobbies are on average far happier than all the young, beautiful folks whose lives look ever-so perfect on Instagram. The problem is that trying to be cool is actually a really difficult task, which often involves worrying a lot about what other people think, wearing uncomfortable clothing and waiting in long lines outside exclusive nightclubs.
But for most of us, at some point, something twigs and we eventually discover our authentic selves. Our authentic selves may not really enjoy screaming to have a conversation over repetitive electronic music, while waiting in another line for an overpriced drink. Our authentic selves may actually take great joy in a glass of hot Milo, a good game of Scrabble and an early night.
Many of the pursuits which have brought me the greatest joy are things others have found weird, pointless or incredibly uncool. Thankfully, I got older, stopped caring too much about what others thought and had a great time doing them anyway.
3. It’s probably best not to compare your life to rap videos
People in rap videos look like they are having so much fun. They’re always hanging out at pool parties, dancing without many clothes on or bouncing up and down in cool cars with bouncy suspension. Sadly, I don’t own a mansion with a pool and I don’t know 150 really, really good-looking people who I can invite around for an afternoon of music and casual twerking. And even if I did have a lowrider with bouncy suspension, I’d probably just get carsick and ruin the fluffy dice…
Countless studies have shown us that social comparison is a rather joy-sapping pursuit. Whether we are watching choreographed rap videos or scrolling through carefully constructed social media profiles, we are receiving a highly edited version or reality.
Rather than continue the comparisons and worry about all we are missing out on, we are far better off to stop, realise all we have and create our own moments of joy.
4. Whistle while you work
Sadly, when I try to whistle it sounds like an air mattress has been attacked with a screwdriver. Still, I believe Snow White was onto something. When we treat work as something to be enjoyed, rather than endured, our jobs start to become far less of a grind.
Research shows that we actually perform better when we are happier. Joy can help to make us more creative, more productive, less tired and of course, far nicer to be around. If you want to become good at anything, become good at finding the joy in it.
5. Don’t put off joy
I am constantly amazed at the number of beautiful yachts which day after day, month after month, just bob about collecting seagull s**t. What happened to their owners? Where the bloody hell are they?
Joy needs to be prioritised. It Is not something you should put off until your retirement. It is not something you should suddenly take up when the kids leave home. It is not something you should consider doing once a year, if the weather is nice and if you don’t have too much ironing piled up.
We live ridiculously busy lives and have ridiculously long ‘to do’ lists. If you don’t prioritise joy ahead of all those dull domestic duties, you may never get around it. No one on their deathbed ever said “I wish I had vacuumed more often.”
6. You needn’t have everything to have joy
Why worry about keeping up with the Joneses? The Joneses’ yacht is covered in seagull s**t.
I’ve had camping holidays which were far more joyful than stays in luxury hotels. I’ve made myself mushrooms on toast and enjoyed it far more than waiting around for silver service in a stuffy fine dining restaurant.
While advertising tells us that we can purchase our way to joy, all those luxuries aren’t really necessary. Give a small child the fanciest toy ever and they will invariably be more interested in playing with the box. Children regularly unlock joy by being imaginative, adventurous, curious, playful and open. Sadly, as adults many of us lose touch with these qualities.
7. If you want more joy share it.
A remarkable thing about joy is that you get more of it when you share it. You laugh more when you are with friends. Movies are funnier when you see them in a packed theatre. Games are more exciting when you are part of the crowd.
One of the curses of modern life is that too often we are too busy or too exhausted to meet up. Instead of dragging ourselves across town to see the ones we love, we stay home and do our own thing. While technology was supposed to bring us together, our many digital interactions never quite match up to the real thing.
Facebook is no match for face-to-face. Skyping someone is not nearly as good as hugging them. For anyone wanting more joy in their life, it may just be time to revive the lost art of popping in for a cuppa.
8. Stop, forget about your device and experience true wonder
One day when riding my bike through the bush, I came across an echidna. Extremely excited, I waved down another rider to point out this small, spikey egg-laying freak of nature. Sadly, the other rider barely registered this monotreme marvel before switching his focus to his GPS. Very quickly he moved on, clearly concerned about what this brief stop had done to his Strava lap time. It was then I realised that our ever-growing gadget obsession is robbing us of the here and now.
Isn’t it time we stopped, smelt the roses… and the frangipanis and that amazing hot bread aroma coming from the bakery? Instead of checking emails, we could be checking out the birds which are flying overhead! Instead of watching cat videos, we could be playing with actual cats!
There is joy all around us. If we learn to be just a little more mindful, we can soak up all its restorative, life-affirming goodness.
*Stacks-on is a simple game in which a whole lot of people jump on top of each other. It is typically more fun for those on the top than those on the bottom.