A Simple Way to Increase Your Joy
December 18, 2012
For several weeks now, I’ve been in terrific spirits. It’s not that I was depressed before that — I’ve generally been feeling fine — but I’m talking about another level here, something akin to elation.
There are some external explanations for how I’m feeling, but on reflection, I don’t think it’s fundamentally about what’s going on outside me so much as inside.
Instead, it’s about a very small, purposeful shift I’ve made — what the professors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein call a “nudge” in their book of the same title. It’s too early to know if the effect will last — and I certainly won’t stay in this mood forever — but the deceptively simple notion is that small choices we make can deliver big consequences.
My shift began in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. We lost power in our home for 11 days, during which I slept in five different beds at five different locations. At times, I felt deeply upended. But something else also happened.
Along the way, I learned a powerful lesson about taking anything for granted — even having a warm place to sleep.
I felt this even more viscerally when the employees at our company spent a day helping two retired, single women who live on the water in Far Rockaway clean out their flooded homes. They couldn’t imagine how they’d replace what they’d lost, which was nearly everything. It was heartbreaking. Even so, they were incredibly determined to rebuild.
Here’s the very simple question I started asking myself: “What’s right in my life?” I’m trying to do it every day, even multiple times.
After a month back at home, I still find myself appreciating the heat when I get out of bed in the morning, and the lights shining bright when I come home at night. I’m trying not to take even the most basic elements of my life for granted.
But it goes beyond that. I also find myself asking “What’s right about the people in my life?” — or, more specifically, “How can I appreciate the best in people?” Far too often in my life I’ve reflexively defaulted the other way — focusing on what irritates, or frustrates, or triggers me about any given person. It’s so easy to move to judgment — the righteous feeling of being “one up” — as a way of protecting against the awful feeling of being “one down.”
Not long ago, someone I know through work said publicly that he didn’t like me. I struck him as too self-serving, egocentric, and self-satisfied. In fairness, he went on to say that those qualities were ones he didn’t like in himself and that he’d projected them onto me. We hadn’t ever spent much time together, but the words still stung. No one enjoys being criticized or wants to be disliked.
When I thought about it, however, I realized I had long felt the same way about him, for the same reasons. The qualities I objected to were ones I also saw in myself, and disliked.
Last week, in an attempt to find some common ground, we decided to have lunch. I came to our meeting determined to see the best in him, rather than the worst. To my amazement, it turned out to be easy to do. I found him charming, thoughtful, and genuine. I believe he had the same experience of me.
I had nudged myself, by making a simple decision to shift the focus of my attention (and so, perhaps, had he). I left the lunch feeling great, not just because I felt we’d made such a strong connection, but also because a simple move made such a powerful difference in my experience.
Something else contributed: I was able to resist feeling defensive. Yes, I can be self-involved and self-serving, but that’s not all of whom I am. My imperfections are part of me, but they don’t define me. It’s not a zero sum, either-or game, which I’ve often assumed it is.
Just as I can choose to focus on the best in others, I can appreciate the better parts of myself without pretending I don’t have plenty to work on, including — ironically — the inclination to be judgmental.
I’ve discovered a lightness in my life these past few weeks because I’ve made a slight shift of my attention. I’ve been able to focus on what I can appreciate, embrace, and celebrate. That energy has proved to be contagious. The more I share it, the more I get it back. I’ve replaced a vicious cycle with a virtuous circle.
Change that lasts doesn’t happen easily, and I don’t kid myself that I’m going to feel this way in every moment going forward. The crucible is whether I can stay the course when something really difficult arises. What I have seen is how big the payoff can be.
What’s right in your life?