Moving from disappointment to joy

As we discuss that elusive search for joy that goes on in our lives, we have looked at the cultural myths that get in the way of us finding the joy we deep down long for. Tim Keller describes these as ‘naive primary strategies’.(See previous post).

appreciation-and-gratitudeThey are naive in that they are both too simplistic and because they have to do with things that have to go right in our lives for us to be happy. In traditional cultures it is about having the right spouse or family or career; while in more contemporary cultures it is the thirst for success as I choose to define it. But relying on your circumstances for ultimate happiness is doomed to failure because of the experiences of failure or success that we all go through. (There is more on this in the previous post). Psychologists have also pointed out that life circumstances only account for 10% of our overall level of happiness.

Keller helpfully points out that as a result of this we move to precarious secondary strategies to deal with disappointment in not finding joy. We may not even be aware we are doing it, but they are nevertheless powerful influences in our lives.

The first of these Keller calls ‘the switch strategy’. You move from one cultural myth for happiness and joy to the opposite.
I remember a boy in my class at school when I was around 14 or 15. He was an intensely religious Sikh who worked hard and studied diligently. Then suddenly at the start of the new school year he completely changed. He removed his turban, stopped taking any interest in his studies and decided he was going to live care free and for the moment. He became one of the ‘cool lads’ who did as little as possible and became a significant challenge to the teachers. It was such a change that many of us wondered if it was the same person. Although he never talked about it our sense was that he had decided he was going to make a major switch to find, as he saw it, greater fulfilment in life.
Another example is the so-called ‘mid-life crisis’. Here is how C.S. Lewis describes it:

‘The long dull, monotonous years of middle-aged prosperity or middle-aged adversity are excellent campaigning weather for the devil.’

There is a similar dramatic change in the previously apparently responsible individual who with the sense of time pressing on appears to regress to a second adolesence.

The 2nd strategy Keller calls ‘the frantic strategy’.
That says because the primary strategy of doing my duty or discovering my dream is not working  I need to try harder. You put in the hours, you give it your best in terms of time, energy and effort. You are incredibly busy and because you are so busy you don’t have the time even realise it’s not working. There is an incredibly vast black hole in your heart that nothing can fill.
My time of intense spiritual seeking coincided with me struggling to keep up with my academic studies. Prior to this time I had always managed to pull through by putting in the effort and studying harder. I prided myself in always being able to come through by my own efforts. Then I hit medical school and found that no matter how hard I tried, I just could not keep up with the work. Along with this was an incredible sense of emptiness – a black hole that nothing could fill be that socialising, fitness or doing my studies. (For more on that see the video Just As I Am).

The 3rd strategy Keller calls ‘the cynic strategy’.
It reminds me of the ancient fable of the fox who could not get to some grapes as they were out of his reach. To console himself he decided that they were probably sour anyway!
With the cynic strategy we tell ourselves that there is no lasting joy out there. That this world is not going to give you what your heart desires. That everything is ultimately fake – or even illusion. To try to hope for lasting joy is like hoping for the moon. It is unreachable. So it is not worth trying.
Thoreau describes this as ‘living lives of quiet desperation.’ To shield ourselves we love to make fun and find fault in those who still seeks this ultimate sense of happiness. In the long run when you have given up seeking any joy that is beyond what your heart has right now, you stop living and just start existing. You become less of a human being. Here is how C.S. Lewis puts it:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

As we gain awareness of these strategies in our hearts we can move on to looking to the One who is the source of ultimate joy and fulfilment.

What issues and questions does this post raise for you?

The lies we tell ourselves about joy

Our hearts are hungry for joy. We think it is our circumstances that need changing, but joy goes well beyond our circumstances as this powerful and joy-filled video illustrates:

As children we looked to all sorts of things for joy fulfilment. I gave some examples from my own life in the previous post.

The other huge area where this expresses itself is with romantic love. For me as a teenager growing up in an all boys school in England that was a huge subject to deal with. And it still is for anyone growing up.
As the poem says:

The search for joy

You and I are hungry for joy.

The 4 minute video below about Nick Vujicic we introduced in the last post illustrates how there is a form of happiness that is independent of our circumstances. Nick in this video has certainly experienced it.

There is a deep desire in our hearts for joy. At the same time there is also in our hearts a deep lack of joy that creates an intense internal longing. As C.S. Lewis says,

“There is a kind of happiness and wonder that makes you serious.”

Why is joy more important than happiness?

I don’t think it is a matter of semantics. We have looked at the importance of a happy disposition in life, but we also need to make a distinction between happiness and joy. What is the distinction?

The following 4 minute video of  Nick Vujicic who was born with no arms and legs is incredibly joyful:

Nick is able to show an incredible amount of happiness in spite of his apparent limitations because he has joy.

That joy empowers him, as he says on the video “to be thankful, to dream big and to never give up.”

Why Gratitude can be so Powerful

We have been looking at the importance of gratitude as a key to overall happiness in life (see previous post). We have also pointed out how psychologists have estimated that life circumstances only account for about 10% of a person’s overall level of happiness (see the happiness formula at Why I Am Working at Becoming a Happier Person).

HappinessAccording to psychologists, 90% of your overall level of happiness has to do with who you are and what you do. Intuitively we know life will always have its ups and downs and so it is dangerous to depend on your circumstances for happiness. And yet that is our natural default way of thinking. We need to intentionally change that.

Instead your relationships and your life practices are going to be the fuel for how you feel, not what is going on around you.

Therefore, no matter what the circumstances are, we need to be practising gratitude to fill the gap between what is happening around us and how we internally feel. (See also Which Way Are You Looking? Part 1 and Part 2). The reason is that even if things are apparently  going well in our lives we can still find ourselves unhappy.

This also explains why you can find unhappy people in what appear to be the best of circumstances.

The importance of gratitude in becoming a genuinely happier person

For much of my life I have been a ‘glass half-empty’ negative kind of person. I am not proud of that. Given a choice I will tend to find my mind drifting towards the worst case scenario. When they were younger some of my children gave me the nickname “Pudleglum”. 

HappinessPuddleglum is a fictional character from C.S. Lewis’ children’s novel, “The Silver Chair”. He is caricature of pessimissim and a bastion of gloomy fortitude.  (see post What Are The Forms of Major Depressive Disorder? and my own personal struggle with depressive thinking at the post Just As I Am).

However, over the years I have learnt there are certain habits and choices I can make that can profoundly influence my state of mind on a moment-by-moment basis. One of the most foundational is the cultivation of an attitude of gratitude.  I share my experience with you here for you to see if there is anything that resonates with you and you feel you can apply in your own life.

In November 2008 I went to hear a lecture by the psychologist Tal Ben-Sahar at an elite private school called Wellington College. In many ways that evening was a life-defining moment for me. At that evening I was challenged by Tal Ben-Sahar keeping a daily journal every night for several years. In that journal he recorded at least 3 things that he was grateful for. I was so inspired that evening I made a decision, with the help of God’s grace, to do that as well.

Why I am working on becoming a happier person

We are use to the idea of training our physical bodies to become physically fit. There are distinct things we can do to become a stronger and healthier person- eating the right foods, exercising regularly and consistently are the obvious things that come to mind. By applying the Law of Process I can make huge changes to my physical health. That is certainly well established and uncontroversial. But can I actually train myself to be an overall happier person? Shawn Achor, a teacher of positive psychology at Harvard would give an emphatic yes. If you have not yet seen this entertaining 12 minute video (introduced in the last post) I would encourage you to do so.

In all my training to become a psychiatrist I do not recall a single lecture or class on dealing with the positive in life rather than the negative. To illustrate this, according to Martin Seligman between 1967 to 2000 there were the following number of psychological abstracts on the following subjects:

What do you think makes you happy?

The 12 minute video below is a talk given by Sean Achor, who is an American educator, author and speaker. It is both entertaining and funny while at the same time challenges our assumptions as to what are the factors that can truly make us happy.

One of Achor’s main points is the importance of mindset to increasing our potential for happiness, productivity, creativity and energy. This flies in the face of  much of formal education which seeks to focus on what is called “the cult of the average”. 

What is the most complex object in the universe?

You can make a pretty strong case for saying that the human brain is the most complex object in the known universe. 

Human brain imageIt contains 100 billion nerve cells (called neurones). Each of these neurones contains a vast electrochemical complex and powerful micro-data-processing system. As complex as each cell is it would fit on the head of a pin!

In the last 150 days of intra-uterine life, the brain is apparently developing neurones at the rate of 580,000 a minute! Each neurone connects to another neurone through anywhere between 1,000 to 10,000 synapses.

New brain connections are created every time you form a memory.

You can even make a case for saying that the number of potential  inter-neuronal connections in one human brain is significantly  more than the number of atoms in the known universe (see Wonder Filled Bold Humility part 2).

More than 650 people attempted to set a new Guinness world record on 22 February 2014 when they created the largest image of a brain made out of people in Liverpool’s University Square.

The participants donned ponchos of different colours to represent parts of the brain (red for the frontal lobe, blue for the parietal lobe, orange for the occipital lobe, green for the temporal lobe, yellow for the cerebellum, purple for the brainstem and spinal cord). The record attempt was led by Tom Solomon, head of Liverpool University’s Institute of Infection and Global Health, in aid of World Encephalitis Day.

Here are some interesting facts about your brain:

9 reasons why you could be feeling down. Particularly #4

We all have times when we feel down or deflated.

depressed-older-ladyFor a clinical diagnosis of depression, doctors consider nine specific symptoms. Major depression is diagnosed from persistent low mood and loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities along with at least four of the other symptoms for at least two weeks. (See Is The Rate of Depression Actually Increasing or Not?)

But whether depression is classified as major, moderate or minor, as far as the individual is concerned its all major. Rather like all minor surgery if it is happening to you personally then it is major surgery! (See the 4 minute video I Had A Black Dog).

A helpful way to look at the forms and varieties of  low mood is as a spectrum of causes that may or may not be inter-related to each other.

  1. It can be  a symptom of something else- for example a side effect of a serious illness or a minor illness like the flu.
  2. It can be a reaction to life events like a relationship breakdown, a sudden bereavement or losing a job.
  3. It can also be an illness in its own right when there is a biochemical imbalance in the brain. This is the one that doctors have tended to focus the most on and includes conditions like bipolar affective disorder or manic depression.

In terms of causes, it is important to appreciate that we are holistic beings with a body, mind and spirit aspects that inter-relate with each other.