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:
“In spring a young man’s thoughts turn to love.
For summer, autumn, winter see above!”

At the beginning of the 20th century Freud described religiosity as pent-up sexuality. However, it is probably more accurate to say that sexuality is pent-up religiosity and the desire for spiritual experience.

Teenage longings and crushes, popular music and culture, are full of this desire for the perfect lover who will meet all my needs.

For me it was also combined with a love of Hindi music that created an intense longing for a combination of the perfect girl and a future place to call home. Well I eventually found the girl and have been blessed with 4 children. But as good and wonderful as that is there is still in my heart unfulfilled longing for joy.

There is a joy vacuum, a black hole, that nothing in this world seems able to fill. Tim Keller has helped me enormously with understanding this. He talks of 2 categories of what the human heart does to deal with this hunger for joy. He calls them naive primary strategies and precarious secondary strategies for joy. In this post we will look at the first.

Naive primary strategies.
Assuming that we have not had an enormously unhappy childhood,  most of us start out believing that it is a relatively simple and straight forward thing to find lasting happiness.

In traditional culture (such as the South Asian one I came from) the basic message is to find happiness you need to take on the role you have been given – or in other words do your duty to find happiness. Work hard, be a good person, be a good husband or wife, a good son or daughter. It is in assuming the role you have been given that you will find happiness.

In more contemporary cultures and so prevalent through popular media the message is “you will be happy if you create the role in society you want. Discover or create your dream and then go make it happen.” That is the path to lasting happiness.
We have already shown how our personal circumstances only account for about 10% of our overall level of happiness. But in the long run it is having to face up to failure and success that show these primary strategies for success are naive.

Eventually in life we have to face disappointment and failure (see How To Fail and Lose Well Part 1 and Part 2). The first time this dawns on us is maybe, as in my case, when our favourite team loses or we break up with somebody we really care about. As we get older we get very good at hiding from others and even from ourselves, is how absolutely desperate, pointless and meaningless life looks. (Also see 9 Ways To Look At Your Failures With The Eyes of Faith)

The other way this primary strategy for joy lets us down is when success arrives. I remember when I reached my position of becoming a consultant psychiatrist in 2001. In many ways I had reached the pinnacle of what had been a goal and dream for more than 20 years since starting medical school. And yet with that achievement the overall sense I had at the time was of emptiness – is there more to life than this? My experience is far from unique. Those who have experienced tremendous success also know that it is not enough.

In 2003 Johnny Wilkinson won the Rugby World Cup for England with a drop kick in the last minute of the game. Everything he had been working for in his career had come to fruition. He says in his autobiography, Tackling Life,

“Within hours of that last kick I was tumbling out of control…. I am only as good as my last kick….. I was afflicted with a powerful fear of failure and I didn’t know how to free myself from it. The better things were the more I had to lose.”

There is incredible emptiness even in the greatest success. (For more on this see How Would You Define Success Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3).
Thankfully it does not end there.
In the next post we will look at what Keller calls precarious unstable secondary strategies to deal with the disappointment of not finding joy. Once we are able to identify these tendencies in ourselves we can do something to experience joy and fulfilment with appropriate expectation.
For now here is a question for you: what are some of the lies we tell ourselves in our quest for happiness and fulfilment? What examples come to mind for you?

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.”

The truth is, I would argue, all of us are on a life-long quest for lasting fulfilment and joy. We may or may not recognise it, but there would appear to be a hunger that is very deep in the human soul for this. That hunger makes us incredibly fragile and vulnerable.

It is almost like we are in a no-win situation. Joy can be seen as an ache for the future (unlike nostalgia which is an ache for the past), but it is actually experienced in the here and now. And yet longing for joy, is actually more satisfying than anything I can get in this life.

I have talked about my own and others’ personal experience of this in terms of growing up between two cultures (see the 15 minute video Just As I Am and also the 9 minute video Third Culture Kids and the Search for Home).

We express this search for joy in the comment of longing: “If only _____” (you fill in the blank). Whatever that blank is, hunger and longing for it can grow to become all consuming. The longing can be so intense that even having the desire realised still leaves you with still more longing.

Another one of my early recollections of this longing goes back to the days of being a football fan!
As a 7  year old boy I was mesmerised by football and a particular team: Leeds United. They captured my imagination and I was full of joyful expectation at their potential to go far and win national trophies and championships. However, their surprise loss in an F.A. Cup Final in 1973 to a relatively minor team, Sunderland rocked my 7 year old world in a way that I can remember to this day. Their on-going flirtation with major football success and never quite achieving it in subsequent years felt to my young mind like I was dying a hundred deaths.
The international matches of the World Cup in 1974 and 1978 when England failed to qualify on 2 successive occasions made me switch off all interest in football at the time. It was just too painful to deal with! Writing about it now seems almost comical, but those feelings were real.

When I trained as a psychiatrist I was reminded about the intensity of these feelings coming across some young men in their teens and early 20s who would deliberately harm themselves when their favourite team lost a match. Their longing for joy was so wrapped up in their football team that when their team lost they literally also lost any reason to go on living.

Those experiences made me realise how when the human heart locks onto something for its daily joy, there is an intense all-consuming kind of suction. You don’t realise how powerful this suction is until something goes wrong. There is this internal collapsing of hope within oneself – like an implosion. Our hearts literally become black holes that cannot be filled by anything in this life.

As we get older we find more ‘adult’ ways to deal with our longings. Those longings are just as real, but we become better at hiding how intense those longings are from ourselves and other people. But those longings are still there. We will continue to explore this area, but I close with the following quote from C. S. Lewis well worth pondering over:

“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.”

What are your reflections on this intense human search for joy that nothing in this world seems to fulfil?


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.

Could your lifestyle be getting you down? Part 2

It was the early 1990s. I was just starting as a trainee psychiatrist. She was one of the first patients with depression who I was responsible for. At the time I was a junior doctor on a six month rotation getting experience in a busy outpatient clinic. I had about 20 minutes to evaluate how she was doing, review her diagnosis and decide on treatment options. But this particular lady  just did not seem to be getting better in spite of all the different medications and therapies that were being tried.

depressed-older-ladyI remember going through her history and treatments feeling something was not quite right. I must have been about the fourth or fifth doctor she had seen in the previous two years. I finally had to say to her, ‘Is there something that we are not aware of or are missing?’

Then she dropped the bombshell.