The secret to a joyful life is to be uncompromising when it comes to joy. This is a long one, buckle in and stay with me.
I’ll start with two key assumptions:
First, you want to live a joyful life. You can measure “joyful life” however you want: Service, pleasure, creativity, productivity, wealth, whatever.
Second, I’ll assume you know what brings you joy. You probably don’t (and we’ll cover it later), but for now let’s just assume that you have an accurate model for what brings you joy.
With these two assumptions in place, understanding why so many people are not consistently joyful becomes much easier.
This can be broken down into three general problems. Broadly, they are inefficiency, ignorance, and incompetence.
Let’s start with inefficiency. Many of us participate in an inefficient cycle. We spend our time at work doing something that doesn’t make us joyful. We translate this “unjoy” time into money.
We spend that money on ordinary things; food, shelter, water, clothing. A few of us save the excess money, but most spend it on extraordinary things or experiences. Finally, while in the throes of the extraordinary we experience temporary bursts of intense joy.
I won’t assume you remember your physics class from high school, let’s just agree that every time you make a translation or change (delta, for you geeks), you lose energy.
Refining oil to get gas to burn to turn a turbine to create electricity to push through power lines and eventually come out as the light in your room involves several changes and lots of lost energy.
The same thing happens with joy. Every time you exchange time for money, or participate in an unwanted experience in order to get a desired experience, you lose energy. It’s inefficient.
Identifying the first problem of “time for work for money for things for joy” helps to cure the second problem stymieing your joyful life, which is ignorance.
“The best teachers […] show you where to look but don’t tell you what to see.”
-Alexandra K. Trenfor
Many of us bristle at the thought we’re ignorant. The word has been used so meanly in common speech that it’s become an insult. Ignorance is merely lack of knowledge and can be easily cured with an open and curious mind.
Just by taking the time to read this far, you (may have) cured ignorance about one of the central problems of leading a joyful life, inefficiency.
The third problem to be solved when attempting to lead a joyful life is incompetence. We’ve talked about inefficiency. By exposing inefficiency we’re curing ignorance. Now let’s figure out how to be competent at creating joy.
Being competent at creating joy is a learned behavior. It’s within each of us. Most of us experience it as children and have memories, however dim, of a time when we knew how to be joyful.
Often, that competence withers during our upbringing. Without practice, any skill declines. Perhaps our parents didn’t understand it or teach it to us, their parents didn’t pass it to them and so on. It doesn’t mean you can’t re-learn it.
What are the steps to becoming competent at joy?
First, acknowledge that it’s within your power. Second, create a recurring pattern (daily, hourly, weekly) to cultivate it. Third, as you experience this pattern consistently, incorporate it into more and more of your regular life.
Let’s go back to the inefficient equation we started with: Time for work for money for things for joy.
If you work on cultivating the skill of experiencing joy, you’ll start to experience the “time for joy” equation, which is shorter and far more efficient than what you used to use.
You’ll be joyful at work, you’ll be joyful with money, you’ll be joyful with things, and by the time you get to the end of the equation, joy itself, you’ll realize just how simple (though not necessarily easy) joy is to achieve.
“Whoa whoa whoa, Nik.” I hear you saying it. “How can I be joyful at work? I hate my [fill in the blank.]”
The obvious suggestion is to “do something you enjoy.” I’ve had this conversation with enough people to know the majority of the responses are, “Well, I have to go to work to make money, there’s no way around that. Doesn’t matter if I don’t like work, I still have to pay my bills.”
You’re missing the first and perhaps the most important step, which is to examine your options.
You only have two, and the first one sounds trite. Triteness follows truth: If you can’t do what you enjoy, enjoy what you do.
There is joy to be found in doing a job well, of making a contribution to a larger effort through our work, and even in the worst cases through the camaraderie built through working together in less than ideal circumstances.
The other option is to change what you do.
It’s very difficult to be joyful at a job you don’t like. It’s like trying to grow tomatoes in a bucket of dry gravel. With lots of work and water and fertilizer you can do it, but why not plant ‘em in healthy soil?
If going to work feels like sticking your face into a wire wheel grinder (and you don’t like that sensation), make a change.
This idea of making sure your work is joyful takes us back to the initial assessment: You probably don’t know what brings you joy.
You might think it’s your kids, or working out, or being in Nature. Those are all results, not the original source. For now, let’s stick with exploring how to make work more joyful, keeping in mind it’s just one example.
Way back when you were deciding what you wanted to do when you grew up, you picked a career path. Perhaps it picked you. Maybe you did it because you were good at it, or you thought it was interesting, or intriguing, or you were curious about it.
You listened then to the common clamor to do something you like, and from that built a flawed understanding that your job would bring you happiness. That’s incorrect. Ignorance rears its head again.
Your job is under no obligation to bring you joy, or happiness, or anything beyond the time for money equation.
You are the driving factor of your joy. In order to be joyful, take some time and think about what brings you the most joy. If you and I were sharing a coffee, this is the point I’d ask you, “What do you want to do [with your life]?”
You might, as many others have, pause. You’d think, perhaps uncomfortable that the answer doesn’t spring immediately to mind. Finally, as most do, you’d say, “I’m not sure.
I would sit, hoping that you’d see the true problem. It’s not totally that you don’t know what to do (what you do plays a part, but not the whole part, of how joyful you are), it’s that your joy is your responsibility, and you bring it with you wherever you go.
Sure, finding work that makes your heart sing is a reliable path to experience joy, but it’s not the only way. You are obligated (if you want a joyful life) to inject joy, to create joy, to bring joy to everything you do.
You must be uncompromising in your pursuit of joy. You must constantly examine and cultivate your skill in creating joy, shining light in dark places, putting in the work to create a joyful life. You must explore, be curious, look for and cure inefficiency, ignorance, and incompetence in your pursuit and experience of joy
The joyful life you seek is yours for the taking. The first step is taken, the die has been cast. From here the path is yours to create and walk.
I wish you the very best in constantly finding and experiencing joy throughout the swath of your experience.
Too much reading...
How about dessert?