The practice of cultivating joy

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Why is it that as a society we are convinced of the correlation between exercise and good health, but seemingly only just waking up to the notion that we also need to put time and energy into taking care of our mental health?

In this series of posts, I am arguing for a step change in the way we think about our mental health.

I outline in this series, 8 strategies for doing just that. Some of them require hard work, all of them require commitment -- in the same way as we need to commit to going to the gym, or running, each week, to stay fit.

But not all of them are hard work. Indeed, good mental health is as much about noticing and appreciating the moments of joy in our lives, as it is about “sitting in the shit”, as I put it to my clients. (That is acknowledging, and experiencing, the painful emotions that we habitually avoid.)

As we work together, I encourage clients to concentrate, too, on the moments of joy in their lives, and to spend time focusing on them. Think of it as the steam room after a hard work out.

I have written about mindfulness in my previous post (see September’s blog). This is a type of absolute presence to what is, right here, right now. We do this by bringing our attention to what is happening in the present moment, in a non-judgemental, neutral way. It’s a very useful way to quieten a noisy, chattering mind.

We can also use it to focus on what is termed present moment joy. What I do with clients is ask them to focus specifically on what pleasure they can find in the present moment. It might be the soft touch of a fabric on your arm, the smell of fresh coffee, or the taste of a buttery croissant.

It means looking for the small joys in the everyday: and spending a moment to savour them.

So how about taking a moment, right now, to think about:

* What can I see around me that is a pretty, or beautiful, object (it might be a lamp, or a cushion, or a chair, or a tree or flowers), and how is it to just gaze at it, and enjoy the simplicity of its lines, or the colours in it? Simply drink it in, and focus on experiencing its beauty.

* What does the air feel like on my skin? Is it warm, or cool? Does it feel gentle? Savour the feeling of the air on you.

* How is it to stand up and move? To stretch your back, or your arms. What is the sensation of your muscles, as you move them, and twist them? Can you move in a soft, relaxed way, that eases your body?

I find that successful therapy expands people. Clients become more aware of what the renowned psychoanalyst Carl Jung termed their “shadow”, their darker, more painful feelings and emotions. But, in doing so, there is more space for their lighter aspects: the joy, the peace, contentment and happiness.

It is not unusal to feel gratitude for these blessings as we become aware of them. And a lot of studies on happiness show that gratitude helps us to become mentally healthy. 

In a series of experiments in a 2003 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that daily gratitude exercises gave participants a brighter outlook on life, and a greater sense of positivity.

Some of my clients decide to write a gratitude diary to remind them of their blessings and to balance out the grief or pain they are experiencing.

The ancient Egyptians had a belief about death, that when their souls got to the entrance to Heaven, a guard would ask them two questions. 
The first was “Have you found joy in your life?”, and the second “Has your life brought joy to others?”.

Making a practice of cultivating joy in our lives, not only makes us more mentally healthy, it also helps to spread joy to others. We are warmer, more positive, and more relaxed when we are feeling more mentally balanced.

We are also in a better place to help others. And helping others, in turn, has been proven to increase our happiness levels.

A study in Social Science and Medicine, found that a person who volunteers weekly, is 16 per cent more likely to report being very happy than someone who does not volunteer at all.

The Egyptians believed that answering yes to both of the questions at the gates of Heaven guaranteed you entry. Perhaps so, but there is a wealth of evidence to show that it makes you happier on Earth.