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Janet began her long-planned kitchen remodel filled with dread, certain it would be a difficult experience. A self-described “aversive type,” she knew that her often uncompromisingly high standards, coupled with a tendency to dwell on all the things that might go wrong, were likely to make the project a source of frustration and tension. Janet decided that instead of her usual cycle of anger and impatience, she wanted to have a more positive, joyful experience with the remodel.
Getting clear on her intention to feel joy helped her realize that the attitude she had toward the project would determine not only how she would feel about its outcome but also how rewarding the process would be. She realized that making friends with the workers on the job would be a major step in supporting her positive outlook. “I grew to really care about the people doing the work and looked forward to seeing them each day, learning to trust their judgments and taste,” she said.
She also reasoned that if she could feel satisfaction about the work as it progressed, then that same satisfaction would be there in the completed kitchen. She made a point to look each day for different ways the project gave her a chance to feel pleased. And her theory proved to be true. The pleasure she took in the details of the completed kitchen went deeper than pleasure at the cosmetic and structural improvements.
“When I look at that space, when I get a glass of water or cook a meal, I feel so happy. The whole house feels happier to me and more precious,” Janet reflects. To her surprise, the remodel became a joyful experience from beginning to end.
How do you turn a dreaded kitchen remodel, or any other potentially difficult circumstance, into a nourishing experience and a source of happiness? By changing the default setting of your mind and heart toward greater well-being and feelings of joy.
You do not have to create joy; it is an innate quality already within you, like the capacity to walk or to be kind. You come into this world as an innocent baby with a natural joy. You can still squeal with delight, given the right circumstances. What you likely forget, though, is that you can feel this joy even when the circumstances aren’t just right. In fact, this natural joy is available at all times, and you can consciously cultivate it so that it’s easily accessible, even during difficult moments.
Joy comes in many flavors. For some, it’s an energetic radiance; for others, it’s a quiet feeling of connection. We all have our own way of expressing joy that comes with our unique temperament. In fact, the word “joy” may be a stretch for people who long simply to not be miserable! Those who find “joy” awkward might prefer another word, like “contentment,” “delight,” “happiness,” or “aliveness.” When I use the word “joy,” I often think of it simply as a feeling of well-being.
Truly happy people are not happy all the time. The 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows, to use the Taoist phrase, are part of the full tapestry of life. Being joyful does not mean you stop feeling the full range of human emotion. Life is often hard. You get disappointed. A loved one becomes ill or dies. You feel stress in your relationships, finances, or crowded schedule.
Awakening your joy does not mean denying any of these things. Rather, those who discover the secret of well-being are capable and centered and able to be authentically engaged with whatever circumstances life presents. Although you feel the full spectrum of emotions, you know that anger, sadness, and fear are only temporary visitors. With practice, a feeling of well-being can become the baseline that you return to, rather than an occasional surprise. How do you begin this process? The important first step, as Janet discovered, is to set a clear intention to foster greater well-being in your life.
Put Happiness First
We all want to be happy, but many of us don’t put this desire at the center of our lives. We think that if we are successful, rich, or well liked, happiness will follow. But to awaken our natural joy, it’s essential that we consciously prioritize our intention to be happy. For instance, once Janet decided she wanted her project to be a source of joy rather than frustration and anxiety, she was more motivated to find strategies that would support that central intention. In getting clear on your intention for happiness, you access the place inside that truly wants you to be happy.
The next key step is understanding where real happiness lies. In order to experience genuine well-being, the Buddha encouraged developing what he called wholesome, or healthy, states of mind. These states, such as kindness or generosity, have an expansive quality; they open your heart and create more ease in your mind. They are different from unwholesome states, which fan your desires and provide fleeting pleasure but actually contract the mind and lead to suffering. Taking an honest look at what states contribute to an inner ease and expansiveness, and then cultivating them, is an important part of the process.
The Buddha points out that accompanying these healthy states is a natural feeling of gladness. For example, in the middle of a random act of kindness, you can notice this gladness. By bringing mindful attention to the sensations generated in the body and mind, you strengthen this “gladness connected with what is wholesome,” as the Buddha describes it. More than just “feeling good,” you learn to recognize what it feels like to feel good. By becoming more aware of the landscape of well-being, you amplify your joy.
For example, one practice the Buddha recommends to develop well-being is simplicity, or what I refer to as “the joy of letting go.” This is particularly relevant if you tend to fill up your life by taking on more than you can possibly handle. Simplicity can mean bringing more balance to an overcrowded, busy life. To use simplicity as a joy practice, consciously choose to say no to the next delicious invitation, or decide not to add one more “important” task to your schedule. Then notice how good it feels in your body and mind to give yourself the space that opens with that de-cluttering.
With some practice, you can not only feel happy in the moment but you can also develop that joy as a habitual response. In one discourse, the Buddha simply and profoundly explains how habits are created: “Whatever the practitioner frequently thinks and ponders upon, that will become the inclination of his mind.” You are making either skillful grooves or unpleasant ruts with repetitive habits of thought. Modern neuroscience has corroborated this: Through repetition you strengthen positive neural pathways in the brain. By frequently inclining the mind toward thoughts associated with greater well-being, you begin to shift your habitual thinking. And the shift becomes deeper still when you act on those thoughts and impulses. As you practice being present for moments of joy as they occur and nourish your spirit in healthful ways, you create the conditions for well-being to arise naturally.
As Janet found, “Even in difficult and challenging moments, there is a deep vein of joy underneath that can be mined. This joy is found whenever I can be present with exactly what is. I’ve never experienced this as joy before, but now I do. I have learned to notice the deep joy I experience in simply being alive.”