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“I think I’m bad at joy,” said my client Laura at the start of our last coaching call.
She went on to tell me about a mini road trip she and her boyfriend took over the weekend. There was a moment in the car when everything felt right in the world — the sun was shining, the windows were down, her favorite music was blasting, and her boyfriend smiled over at her and put his arm around the back of her seat.
“I literally thought my heart was going to burst, I was so blissed out in that moment,” she said.
But it didn’t last long. Almost immediately, Laura’s mind started to freak out:
“I really shouldn’t have taken this trip. My boss is already annoyed that I took a whole week off earlier this month, and now I’m taking another long weekend?? Ugh, going back to work on Tuesday is going to be fun… And I probably should’ve put the money I spent on this trip toward my student loans. I’m going to be paying those off forever. Maybe I should get a second job. Or a higher paying job. But what kind of job? Do I need a second degree to get a better paying job? But that would mean MORE student loans. And what if I don’t even like that job? I’m never going to figure this out…”
Within 30 seconds, Laura’s joy had evaporated.
She asked me, “What happened? I was so happy, and then I just … wasn’t. It was like all of these crazy anxious thoughts took over my brain. What’s wrong with me?”
There’s nothing wrong with Laura. She just has the same impulse that most people I know have — to rein in her joy.
YOUR IMPULSE WILL BE TO RESTRAIN YOUR JOY
As much as we’re all seeking happiness, we can get freaked out once we actually feel it.
Why? Because too much joy feels either …
… inappropriate (it’s awkward to be the one laughing until you cry at a work party),
… or dangerous (watch out, all of this happiness could come crashing down at any moment!),
… or naïve (how can you be happy when there’s so much negativity in the world?),
… or unproductive (no time to celebrate — onto the next milestone!).
So you’ll be tempted to restrain your joy. You’ll allow yourself to experience only so much of it, and only in fleeting moments, before you’ll talk yourself out of it.
DO YOU HAVE AN UPPER LIMIT PROBLEM?
The truth is, joy is vulnerable. The happier you feel, the more you’ve got to lose … and that’s freakin’ scary.
Gay Hendricks calls this an “upper limit problem” in his book The Big Leap. Your “upper limit” is the amount of happiness you’re comfortable with, and anything beyond that limit will send your mind into full-on freak-out mode.
For example, many new parents I know tell me that watching their newborn baby sleep is one of the most equally joyful and terrifying experiences they’ve ever had. They’ve never experienced such an extreme level of pure love and joy before, which means they’ve never had more to lose. It can send them into a terrifying “what if?” thought spiral where their brain plays out all of the worst-case scenarios.
When you hit your threshold for happiness, your instinct will be to rein in your joy or self-sabotage to bring you back into your happiness comfort zone.
The point is to protect you from massive disappointment. Because if you weren’t really that happy to begin with, you can’t be but so disappointed if it were to all come crashing down around you, right?
WATERING DOWN YOUR JOY DOESN’T LESSEN LIFE’S DISAPPOINTMENTS
We have this mistaken, subconscious belief that if we tamp down our joy now, then if we wind up disappointed later on it won’t hurt as badly.
But if you ask anyone who’s been through a tragedy or massive disappointment, they’ll be the first to tell you that nothing could have prepared them for the heartbreak.
I’ve known and coached people who have been through divorce, loss of a loved one, a miscarriage, losing their home, and frightening health challenges. Not a single one would tell you, “I’m glad I didn’t let myself be too happy before this happened, because it made going through this experience less painful.”
Nope. Doesn’t work like that. In fact, they’ll tell you the exact opposite.
They’ll say that they regret not fully enjoying every single moment they had with the person who’s no longer in their life, or while they were fully healthy, or generally when life was easier and happier before the tragedy.
The strategy of watering down your joy to make future disappointments easier to bear doesn’t work. It’s a fallacy. If anything, it increases your future pain because it ensures you’ll have lots of missed opportunities to regret.
MAKE YOUR NEW IMPULSE TO FEEL YOUR JOY MORE INTENSELY RIGHT NOW
Instead, I want you to deny the impulse to rein in your joy and do exactly the opposite: lean into it. Let the belly laugh spill out of you unfiltered. Feel the depth of your love for your favorite people in the world without worrying how long they’ll be a part of your life. Bask in the small joys in your day-to-day life.
Here are a few simple ways to feel more joy today:
- Really enjoy your next meal. Instead of taking a working lunch at your desk, or eating a sandwich in your car, or scarfing down dinner while numbing out to mindless TV, focus on fully enjoying your food. Eat slowly, really taste all of the flavors, and feel it nourishing your body. Eating can be one of the simplest and greatest joys, so don’t numb out when you’re eating!
- Play your favorite song of the moment, and just listen. For those 3-5 minutes while it’s playing, you’re NOT allowed to wash dishes or respond to emails or scroll through Instagram. You ARE, however, allowed to sing along, dance, cry, lip sync, or play air drums. Just be with the music and feel it move through you.
- Hold a hug with someone you love for a split second longer. The next hug you give — to your spouse, friend, kid, mom, dog — make it slightly longer than you’d normally be comfortable with. It’ll spike your feel-good hormones and make you feel especially connected and loved.
- Find something — anything! — to be grateful for right now. Even if it feels like your life isn’t going the way you want, ask yourself, “What am I going to miss about this moment or this phase of my life when it’s over?” Even at the worst of times, there’s always something to feel grateful for. Once you pick something, don’t just think about it; really feel the gratitude wash over you.
As I said, these are just a few very small things you can do immediately to increase your joy threshold. I could go on and on with this list, but I think you’re probably seeing a pattern.
What all of these things have in common is they force you to be fully present in the moment. You can’t experience joy if your mind replaying moments from your past or worrying about the future.
True happiness happens in the present moment, so do whatever it takes to bring yourself into right now, and look for the joy, appreciation, and fun.
Where in your life are you limiting yourself from feeling joy? What other suggestions do you have for feeling even slightly more joy right now? As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and personal stories in the comments!
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Kristen (& Rachel)