The pandemic (and the election!) drags on. And there are so many other reasons for people to feel sad, angry and fearful this year. “I remember the good old days, and this is not it,” says my mom.
Can we also experience joy in 2020? And should we?
Many people have told me lately that they feel resistant, even guilty, about allowing themselves to experience joy when so many negative things are happening (or might happen).
If you feel that way, here’s a quick test. Picture the 7.8 billion humans all over the planet, so many of them dealing with illness, violence, caregiving stress, unemployment, poverty, repression, isolation, loss. Do you automatically find yourself hoping that they can experience joy in spite of it all — celebrating together, standing in awe of nature, holding a baby, laughing, singing, teaching, learning, working, creating, playing, and just being alive?
I do. I wish it for you. And I allow myself to wish it for me too.
Besides just welcoming joy as our birthright as human beings, there’s another good reason for allowing ourselves (and each other) to have fun and feel good. If we’re stuck in fear, anger and sadness, we won’t be effective agents of positive change. “Laughter gives us our power back,” says the wise Diane Cohen of Arlington Laughter Yoga.
In 2020, though, many (most?) of us are facing additional stressors, and at the same time we’ve lost some of the outlets that help us recover from stress and experience fun and joy — gathering around a dinner table, giving a friend a hug, playing sports, dancing (I miss indoor Zumba class so much!).
What has this meant for you? In my case, I’ve had waves of sadness and anxiety over things that weren’t bothering me in 2019, like the existential upheaval of moving when I was 13, or “dark” movies (which Netflix keeps insisting are “recommended for me”).
When I feel sad or fearful, my first impulse is to make the feelings go away, and I feel a strong pull toward what I call “positive-to-negative” activities: things that feel soothing at the time but have negative long-term effects. Something inside me insists I’ll feel much better after drinking two glasses of craft beer and eating three Supremo pizza slices from The Italian Store. But I don’t. And it undermines my goal of being a great example of health and fitness at age 60 (just 3 months from now!).
So instead of continuing down the beer-and-pizza road, I’ve been (obsessively) learning about and practicing what really works to calm my stress response and move through my fear and sadness toward joy. Here’s some of the best of what I’ve learned, hope you find it useful!
Accept the world, and your emotions
I know I’m not the only one who wastes mental and emotional energy on things I can’t change (such as the past and other people’s behavior 🙂 ). Somehow it can feel like accepting what we can’t change means we approve of whatever-it-is. How can we possibly feel joy in the face of [bad thing]?
And then comes my worry about my own negative emotions — uh oh, sadness!! I shouldn’t be feeling this! When is it going to stop? What’s wrong with me? I end up layering fear and self-blame on top of the sadness, not a good strategy!
Because the truth is, if we’re stuck internally raging against reality, we’re less likely to move forward with the positive things we can change. Wise schools of thought, from Buddhism, to the Stoic philosophers, to Dialectical Behavior Therapy and of course the Serenity Prayer show the way. We’ve been working on this in my Mindfulness groups on Zoom — I still have a long way to go, but I’m making progress!
Learning to accept and allow our own negative feelings, without judgment, and give compassion to ourselves and others, is a big part of this practice. Not getting upset about them, or trying to blunt them with beer and pizza. Here’s a blog post I think is useful about focusing on feelings in the body and just accepting them as temporary “visitors” and part of our present-moment experience.
While living in Mexico, I also learned a lot about accepting life’s inevitable losses and dangers, and dancing, singing and celebrating anyway. It’s not only allowed but encouraged!
So how do we get from acceptance to joy? Sebastian Gendry teaches the “lesson of the jingle bell” in Laughter Wellness. A jingle bell has to be held loosely, not tightly, in order to jingle. Similarly, joy and playfulness are already inside of us, and we just have to hold ourselves loosely to let them flow. Here’s a similar point of view in this powerful essay from the Buddhist Review about “joy as a radical act.”
I used to think of Buddhism as anti-joy, because of all the talk about “eliminating desire.” But it’s more like eliminating “cravings” for things and experiences we think will make us happy. Instead, we can learn to tap into a deep well of inner contentment — our Buddha-nature. That’s what I want to do!
Create joy in your body
Emotions are a mind-body phenomenon. We feel emotions like fear, sadness and anger in our bodies (heaviness, tension, nausea). One of the most important skills I’ve learned during the pandemic is investigating these emotions in the body with curiosity rather than judgment, accepting them, and listening for the information they carry (which may point to real issues I’m neglecting, or to cognitive distortions that I need to recognize and change).
After doing that, actively involving the body can really help us “shake it off,” “blow off steam” and create joy.
- Move vigorously, especially in ways that you find fun or playful: run, dance, power-walk, ride a bike, swing on playground swings (I did that the other day!). Push your limits a little but not a lot — that can backfire and create more stress in your body, as I found when I hiked 20 miles last week (trying to complete the virtual Marine Corps Marathon by walking, since I definitely can’t run it). The first 10 miles were great, and then I felt anxiety building up. I imagine that my body was getting worried about whatever scary threat was forcing me to walk all day.
- Move in nature
- Move with others, even if it’s on Zoom: dance with this great local Zumba teacher on YouTube (thanks to Beth for the recommendation!); take an outdoor, virtual or safely spaced exercise class.
- Synchronize breathing and movement, for example by practicing yoga or Pilates.
- Create something physical — a drawing or painting, an improvised dance move, a clay sculpture, or a loaf of homemade bread.
- Laugh! Watch a comedy with your family, or join my Laughter Happy Hour on Fridays at 5 pm EST.
- Sing or chant
- Focus on something that feels good within your body, like the sensation of breathing, and try to expand and enjoy that feeling on purpose. (We do this in my Mindfulness groups!)
I can’t hug anyone today in the time of COVID-19 (except my cat). My family members are far away. I can’t go to an in-person class or share a meal with friends. So I have to work harder to find a basic sense of human connection . Despite their limitations, Zoom and WhatsApp have been lifelines for me, like when we get our family together on Zoom from four different places to laugh and reminisce over old photos (thanks to Zack for organizing them!).
Here’s a good article on combating isolation in 2020. And the following measures are pretty obvious, but it’s a good idea to keep reminding ourselves of what we can do.
- Get together outdoors; it’s much safer (still distancing and taking precautions of course)
- Prioritize interactive media (voice, video) over messaging and social media
- Reach out to neighbors (it seems like we did more of that back in the spring)
- Consider opening up to a therapist or coach who will “hold space” for you to work through any stuck negative patterns and free you to experience more peace and joy.
- Deepen a relationship; go beyond small talk
- Say nice things to people you meet in public, since it’s hard to smile through a mask 🙂
Do the “positive-to-positive” things
I mentioned above that when I feel stressed, I’m drawn to things that feel good but have long-term negative effects. I have to steer myself intentionally toward activities that feel soothing in the moment AND have positive consequences. (I don’t succeed every time, but I give myself compassion and keep going 🙂 ) Here are some of the items on my list; what’s on yours?
- Doing Tapping meditations with the Tapping Solution app
- Taking a yoga class (active or restorative) at home using the YogaGlo app
- Riding my bike @pearltheelectricbike, follow her on Instagram 🙂
- Making and eating homemade soups
- Fixing or organizing something in the house (this is clearly why Goodwill and other donation centers have been overwhelmed 🙂 )
- Curling up with my cat and an uplifting book
- Walking, hiking and doing my “Fierce in the Forest” outdoor workout
There’s also a category of activities I call “negative-to-positive” — they can feel stressful in the moment but generally have positive consequences. I used to do things in this category regularly, like fasting for 1-3 days, eating radically low-carb (keto) for a week, going vegan for 30 days, writing or editing for many hours in a row, attending two or three exercise classes back to back, and similar. This year, I find that these kinds of challenges just don’t work for me, as I saw after mile 10 of my 20-mile hike. I need to go easy on myself and avoid pushing myself too far.
Find joy with me?
I’m definitely not a guru; I’m a seeker and learner like you. But I’ve created some free groups for my awesome followers where we unconditionally support each other on Zoom (and in the forest) to do many of the things I’ve mentioned here: practice mindfulness, move our bodies in nature, laugh together and create more joy. Reach out to me to join a Mindfulness group, Laughter Wellness or Fierce in the Forest (learn more here ).
Working with me as your coach can also help you experience more joy, as you liberate yourself from counterproductive habits and cravings, have fun with “positive-to-positives” that really work for you, and claim your power to achieve your health goals. Contact me for a sample coaching experience where we tackle one habit and make significant progress in just one free session. Here’s what a participant said last week:
Thanks so much for reading, and let me know in the comments what you are doing to find more joy in 2020!