Prioritizing the things you enjoy seems like common sense. You love it, so you would choose to do it more often, right? Yet, this doesn’t seem to happen. How many of us, for instance, would say watching TV is a priority in our lives? Other than TV critics, probably very few. Still, the average American will spend nine years of their lives watching TV.
Our behavior affects our thinking. From how we sit, to the time we spend outside, we can create more opportunity for relaxation, connection, and joy in our lives.
Emotions are Responses to Actions
A few months ago, I had begun working with The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron. Every week, I needed to do an artist date, a commitment to spend time with myself. While self-conscious, I picked up a cheap chalk set and took it home with me. The next morning, I went outside, put on some music and began drawing. Swirling color on the asphalt, listening to music, I couldn’t stop smiling.
The drawings became larger and larger. My clothes were a mess, my hair got sweaty, but I was engrossed in the bright colors against the black. There was no ulterior motive, no pressure in how this had to look. It was just a joyful few hours. In fact, I ran out of chalk!
The craziest part of this was not that I enjoyed chalk, but that I hadn’t done it in 10 or 12 years. What was so much fun as a kid wasn’t cool as a teenager, or as an adult. So I stopped doing it. But who did that hurt? Only me. My embarrassment cut out an activity I enjoyed. Worse, it cut out the opportunity to feel joy in life.
Emotions are responses to our experiences. Fundamentally, they are a way of keeping us safe and alive through positive responses to beneficial activities. When we’re hungry, it feels good to eat because we are nourishing our bodies. When we are burned, it hurts because it threatens our health. They are a great barometer for how our actions affect us.
When you take time to do things you enjoy, you create the opportunity to feel pleasure. You may feel self-conscious or a bit awkward initially, but you will enjoy the activity. Maybe you only crack a smile, but it’s an opening to something larger.
Joy as Your Compass
Brené Brown has done amazing research on human connection and what brings joy and meaning to people’s lives. What’s fascinating about her work though, is the need for authenticity. As human beings, we are social creatures and we need connection. But the connection we want hinges on an important factor: being ourselves. If we aren’t ourselves fully and truly, we can’t create real connections in life.
But what does it mean to be authentic? It’s a practice, it’s showing up every day and making the choice to be yourself. Authenticity isn’t something you wake up with, like freckles or long legs. It’s a practice requiring commitment.
So who is your authentic self? Is it the person you’ve fallen in to being? I know that figuring this out isn’t easy. I graduated from college three years ago, thinking I wanted to give my life in the service of others. I had grown up helping others, not thinking about myself. While noble, it took six months of living abroad to realize I wasn’t happy. It was hard to admit, but selfless service wasn’t for me.
I had to come back to America and figure out what work made me smile, gave me joy. I discovered it right under my nose: writing. Journaling led to poetry, which led to short stories, and eventually got me a job as a copywriter. The path wasn’t easy, but I now wake up and enjoy what I do. And in my own small way, my words help people, and myself.
Your story doesn’t have to be as drastic as mine. Prioritizing the activities you enjoy can help you decide what you do and don’t like. It helps you stay rooted in yourself. The question, “Do I enjoy this?” suddenly has you looking to yourself for answers. Prioritizing your joy puts you in command of your life.
Creating Meaning in Your Life
Blue Zones teamed up with National Geographic to have some of the best researchers study longevity and what, if anything, can be found to help people live longer and better lives. They have found multiple “blue zones” in a variety of places from Japan to Southern California. Some of their findings have been hyped: movement and diet especially. More fascinating have been the social and psychological factors.
One psychological factor that all these communities shared was the need for meaning. Each of us needs to be able to answer: Why do I get up in the morning? Yes, this is a daunting question. If you haven’t thought about your priorities, then the question becomes unanswerable.
Prioritizing things you enjoy can help you find those answers, as well as keep you grounded in meaningful activities. Joy as a compass for authenticity, also helps guide you to your answers. Perhaps your priority is raising your children in a safe and loving environment. Thus, even when you’re deep in a long PTA meeting, you can remember that this meeting will help your kids. Remembering the bigger priority will help you see the silver lining, and get through a painful meeting a bit more easily.
Letting Go of the Negative
I hate to admit it, but most mornings I wake up and check social media. A bit clichéd for a millennial, but I am addicted to the internet. More and more, however, I’m focusing on writing in my journal instead. I free write for three pages, clearing my head for the day. Change is hard, but more and more I find the benefits of writing outweigh any excitement from a Tweet or Facebook notification.
As humans, we only have so much time. In one day you work for at least eight hours, and sleep for hopefully another seven to eight. At the minimum, that’s fifteen hours of your day gone. No one can do it all, for better or worse, so as your habits change, you will let things go.
When you begin to prioritize things that make you happy, you’ll slowly let go of activities you’ve done that didn’t help you. Perhaps you’ll spend less time on social media like me. Maybe you’ll go out drinking less and start hiking more. You could even start cooking or traveling on mini trips on the weekend. Wherever joy takes you, you’ll find it easier to let go of things holding you back. You’re not depriving yourself, you’re nurturing yourself with something even better than before.
The only certainties in life, Benjamin Franklin once joked, are death and taxes. While morose, this is also true. Time, of all the things we possess, is the most precious commodity. How we choose to spend it reveals more about ourselves than anything we say.
Life will never be easy or perfect. You will still have to pay taxes, go to work, get stuck in traffic, and make mistakes. There will be days you don’t want to get out of bed or wish that you were anywhere else. That doesn’t make your life bad, it makes you healthy, normal.
But you have choice in your actions. You can choose to sit down and spend quality time with your kids. You can choose to go outside for a hike instead of turning on the TV. You can create pockets of joy in five or ten minutes.
Featured photo credit: Express Monorail via flickr.com