My old definition of joy always seemed like it was in the future. When I get this, I’ll be joyful. When I get that, I’ll be joyful. When I feel better; am better; I’ll be joyful. And it’s sad to look back on so many days that I wasted waiting for joy rather than waking up to the fact that it’s all around me. —Kris Carr
A powerful antidote to the fear and anxiety sometimes stirred up by a health condition is joy. And sometimes joy can feel in short supply when dealing with health challenges. If we want joy, we have to actively reach for it. We’ll explore some ways to do that.
Two Powerful Ways to Embrace Joy: Gratitude and Feasting
Practicing gratitude is one of the most powerful ways to embrace joy. As Oprah Winfrey says, “If you focus on what you have, you will begin to see that you have more. And if you focus on what you don’t have, you will always live in a space of lack.” Studies have also shown that consciously expressing gratitude can improve your physical health, quality of sleep, and self-esteem.
One of the best ways to actively appreciate what you have is to keep a gratitude journal, in which you write five specific things for which you are grateful every day and spend a few minutes focusing on each one. It can relax you and help you notice the good around you.
Another way to appreciate the good in your life is a brilliant practice that Martha Beck calls “feasting.” In her book, The Joy Diet: 10 Daily Practices for a Happier Life, Beck describes feasting as enhancing positive life experiences. She expands this description on her Website, saying,
“The most common definition of the word feast, of course, is a large meal. Most Joy Diet feasts, however, don’t involve food…Hearing a symphony or touching the curve of your lover’s elbow could definitely count as a feast, provided that you pay the right kind of attention.”
Beck explains that to create a feast,
“it helps to perform some kind of ritual that will direct your attention to the symbolic significance of your actions. A ritual, however simple, creates a border around an activity the way a frame does around a picture. It sets this activity apart from regular life in a way that emphasizes beauty and uniqueness, ensuring that those who participate in it become more aware of its meaning.”
In our home, having candles and flowers at the table can transform a ho-hum family dinner conversation into that kind of joy-inducing, connected feast. Similarly, playing music, singing softly, and waking up my sons with short massages instead of just yelling “It’s time to get up!” can turn a key part of our morning routine into a feast instead of a fiasco. Look for spots in your life that can be enhanced to create these joyful feasts.
Finding it Difficult to Find Any Spots of Joy?
If you are finding it difficult to find any spots of joy for gratitude or feasting, you may be depressed. If so, you’re not alone. Dealing with a long-term health issue can be depressing. I know. I’ve been there. When you feel depressed, dark messages and fears cloud your thinking so that you feel hopeless, discouraged, and unable to see much good now or in the future.
The Patient Health Questionnaire is a great self-assessment tool that, though not providing a precise medical diagnosis, can help you determine if you might be depressed. You can find the questionnaire at www.EverydayHealingforYou.com/tools. (Adjust the scoring accordingly if your health condition shares some symptoms with depression, like fatigue or difficulty concentrating.) If you think you are depressed, talk to your friends and family, get support, use the tools in this book, or consider seeing a therapist for help.
For Today: Choose an activity in your life that could be enhanced to experience more meaning and joy. Decide how you want to add ritual or attention to turn it into a feast.
Two Suggestions On How To Bring More Joy Into Your Life
Laughter is great for your health. The catch is that, according to some studies, small children laugh 300 to 400 times per day, whereas adults only work up a chuckle about 15 times per day. The truth is that if you’re dealing with a major health challenge, you may find that your daily laugh count is even lower. It’s not always easy to find the funny.
In The Joy Diet, Martha Beck recommends getting at least 30 laughs a day and shooting for one hundred. I took her advice when I was depressed during my illness by putting together a “laughter kit” that included Far Side and Dilbert comic books, and DVDs of The Simpsons and Seinfeld. It sounds silly, but spending hours laughing with my kit, especially with other people, was one important piece to pulling me out of my depression. Try it. It can’t hurt.
Do What You Love
Making time to embrace the things you love can significantly increase your joy and reduce stress. Make room in your life for the things that you love and can do—art, music, carpentry, quilting, reading, dancing, writing, gardening, hiking, or whatever—even if it is only a little bit every now and then.
I want to acknowledge two things about this. First, though it can be fabulous for your well-being to do what you love, be careful not to pour your attention into a hobby to avoid dealing with the reality of your health condition.
Second, if you are dealing with major health challenges, some more physically demanding things like gardening or dancing may seem impossible. It can be difficult to accept limitations, but sometimes adapting your passions to your current abilities can still bring joy. If gardening or dancing feel out of reach, maybe having an herb garden in pots or dancing while sitting down would be good options.
See what works for you and get emotional support to help deal with any grief you need to work through to get back to your passions in a new, adapted way. Plus, there are less demanding joy-inducing activities to choose from like reading, singing, crafting, listening to music, podcasts, or audiobooks; and watching good-quality entertainment.
To see one of the most potent illustrations of doing what you love and reaching for joy in the face of a health challenge, look up the beautiful viral video “Deb’s OR Flash Mob” on YouTube. When Dr. Deborah Cohan was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer and needed a double mastectomy in November 2013, she decided that she wanted to go into the surgery as strong, centered, and joyful as possible, so she danced—in the operating room, to Beyoncé, with a team of surgical residents and nurses grooving along with her. It is breathtaking to watch. As Dr. Cohan explains:
I asked the anesthesiologist if I could dance before the surgery. I knew it was a crazy request, but I wanted to be in a really vibrant place and have my body be receptive to surgery…Most patients get medicated and go in on a gurney. I wanted to have my fully conscious self walking in there, choosing to have the surgery…For me, this wasn’t about ignoring fear—it was about confronting fear and sorrow really directly. I was afraid of death, and once I really fully explored that—what it would look like for me to die right now and leave my two young kids—I just went there. And once I did, it was a discovery that while I had to have this experience, I was not going to die from having my breasts taken off. And then there was space for joy.
Learn more about Dr. Cohan’s perspectives on healing through joy and movement at www.embodied medicine.org.
Find Joy through Connection
But that’s just it; I can either focus on what I have lost, or what I have gained, and I choose the latter. —Angie Smith
When speaking about feasting, Martha Beck says,
“In the end, there is one sort of feast that eclipses all the other kinds put together, and that is a feast of love… To me a feast of love is any instant (or hour or lifetime) when human beings exchange affection.”
One of the pitfalls of having a serious health condition is that you may miss out on a lot of love feasts. That can be very isolating, which can lead to depression and make it harder to take care of yourself.
Do whatever you can to connect with others and avoid that isolation. If you don’t have the energy to go out, let your friends know how they can come and be social with you in a way that is not draining. Maybe someone could come watch a movie with you, bring a meal and eat with you, or bring a book and just read quietly with you in the same room.
Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, says that the happy-making tip that she found most effective was to join or start a group. “We know from the research that what makes us happiest is strong relations with other people, and you can build that through joining or starting up groups.”
If you are well enough, getting involved in groups related to your health condition that have a proactive, positive perspective can be very rewarding. If you are not physically well enough to go out to group meetings, look into joining online groups that relate either to your health condition, or to something else that gives you joy. Carmel, a physician in North Carolina, has two fabulous daughters, one of whom is severely disabled with cerebral palsy. Carmel says that her “online family” of other parents raising disabled children is her lifeline and greatest source of support. When nobody else understands what she is going through, she knows they’ll be there. Look around to see what you like. If you try one and hate it, don’t give up. There are a gazillion groups out there. There’s one for you.
For Today: Think of a couple of ways that you can connect with others in the next week; even if they are just small, first steps. Write them down in your calendar to help you remember.
©2015 by Janette Hillis-Jaffe. All rights reserved.
Reprinted, with permission of the publisher, New Page Books.
a division of Career Press, Pompton Plains, NJ. 800-227-3371.
Everyday Healing: Stand Up, Take Charge, and Get Your Health Back...One Day at a Time
by Janette Hillis-Jaffe.
About the Author
Janette Hillis-Jaffe is a sought-after speaker, consultant and coach, with a Masters in Public Health from the Harvard School of Public Health. She spent thousands of hours studying counseling, nutrition, the mind-body connection, and the U.S. health care system during her successful effort to heal from her own six-year debilitating autoimmune disorder. She is passionate about supporting others to take charge and achieve their best health possible.