On Being Joyful
A recent encounter with an unusually articulate and observant person caused me to think about how I live my life and why. She said that she saw me as living a life of gratitude and I was struck by this. I had never thought of my way of being in that way, and I could not figure out why I do that. I struggled to explain to myself, and to her, why I live this way. I even started to question myself and the time I spend on thank you notes and being attentive to people I don’t know and will likely only encounter once. I eventually came to understand that it is part of a series of things I do intentionally to live a joyful life. These ways of being have developed over the years, as a result of my upbringing and life experience after leaving the nest.
Often it takes an encounter with someone new and thoughtful to get us thinking in different ways about ourselves. It is rare to find friendly and caring people who are also articulate and willing to share their observations openly and with a proper appreciation for who we appear to be in their eyes. I was lucky enough to meet one such person recently, and she said something that forced me to think about who I am and why I am that way.
This person told me that she admired the life of gratitude that I live. It was a compliment I could have just said thank you for, but for me, it was so thoughtful and sincere that I wanted to understand myself better and think about why I acknowledge people so profusely. I wondered why I, as a matter of fact, spend time crafting communications to people who touch my life. This got me wondering why I stop to converse with people, some of whom barely weave themselves over the surface of my life. This was a struggle as I began to question my actions, as I try to live an intentional life and not go through life on autopilot. I knew I was doing these things on purpose, but to what end, I was not clear.
I began to wonder if I was compelled to be grateful and I worried I was overexpressing myself or on autopilot. This person then pointed out to me that it was up to me to decide whether to write a long thank you that makes me feel really good or a short one that adds a touch of joy to the recipient’s and my life. What struck me was that I might be living a life of gratitude only because it feels good to me. And then another friend helped me see that it is OK that I feel good about letting people know I am grateful for everything from things they help me with to their presence in the world.
I have come to the realization that it is just part of my very intentional striving to live a joyful life. I’ve thought a lot more about what I do to live the life I want, and I came up with four things that I personally do to live a life of joy.
First, I try my best to be intentional. I try to avoid autopilot as much as possible and think about what I do and say. I guess some people might call this mindful living. I am not sure how mindful I am with things like doing the dishes. I am more intentional in my interactions with people and my decisions as what to say or write. (I can also go on a stream of consciousness monologue when I’m confused and trying to figure things out. And I’ve come to see that this is OK too.)
Most of the time I am intentionally trying to figure out how to communicate best how I feel and make that as meaningful as possible. I purposely look at the people around me and really try to see them. I try not to have preconceived thoughts about them. If I must have an assumption about people, I actively assume that the people I meet are all angels. This means that I am probably at higher risk of being hurt. I’m OK with that. I would rather live with an open heart.
I urge you to give intentional living a try. Don’t go through life on autopilot. We each get only one life, it is a shame not actively to live that one life. I have come close to losing my life several times, and I think this is part of how I have come to live this way.
Life is too short to be on autopilot. I am intentional in my approach to the other three things on this list.
Second, I help others whenever I can. I try to see who needs help. My father is a master at this. He always can pick people in need out of a crowd and pay for their meal or groceries. As a doctor, he always knew which patients had no family to care for them, and he would work the system to make sure they got more time in situations where they were not alone. He used to bring these folks care packages to take home when they were discharged and presents at holidays. He always counseled my brother and me to pay attention to the happiness and sense of fulfillment of every person, especially the people others often disregard. It is one of the greatest lessons he has taught me.
When people ask for help or seem in need, I try to help. I have noticed that, for the most part, people enjoy receiving help and it makes them happy. I think this is because it makes life easier and provides a sense of community. When other people are happy around us, we are more likely to be happy and joyful. I want people to know that they are not just passing through my life, invisible to me. I want them to know that I see them. I feel them. This attentiveness to others makes me happy. Perhaps it would work for you.
Third, I am grateful. I am thankful for the people in my life, and I want them to know that. Everything that I have accomplished is due to a large extent to the kindness of others, and I want them to know that. I am grateful for the people who do all the little things that keep my life moving forward and who often go unnoticed, the grocery clerks, the pharmacist, the guy that makes my burrito, … Showing my gratitude feels good, and that is ok because I feel good about letting others know what they mean to me. I learned this from my new friend, who has a gift for providing insightful advice and delivering it in a kind and thoughtfully worded way. Thank you, MG.
Fourth, I have a spiritual practice. I spend time alone to think and go through things in my life. I meditate, and I pray. This can be time spent out in nature and involve laying on the ground on a hilltop watching clouds or hiking a trail. It can be walking through a cemetery contemplating my mortality. It can be listening to music and dancing in the living room. It can be walking meditation in my neighborhood. It can be prayer and contemplation of verse from a variety of spiritual/religious texts. It can be cooking for people I care about. Whatever it is, I do it alone, for at least 20 minutes a day.
I can’t emphasize this fourth practice enough. Time alone with oneself is critical to self-understanding and preservation of self in a world that bombards us with communication and requests for part of our time and ourselves. For as long as I can remember, I have had some kind of spiritual practice in my life. I hope that you can find the time for yourself to rejuvenate spiritually regularly.
All these little practices, for me, add up to living as joyously as possible. And I use that word, practice, on purpose. I have to try hard to live this way. And, of course, I fail at this often and have to remind myself to refocus my intention and efforts to live the way I want. Some days it is like breathing meditation, and other days it is a struggle. The point is to keep trying. I can’t guarantee what mix of practices will work for you. I think it can be different for different people. I hope you find a set of practices and attitudes that allow you to live with constant joy.