It's 3:00 in the morning and for some reason I can't sleep. That never happens to me. There is so much going on in my mind that I just have to write it out and then hopefully get back to bed. A friend said something to me yesterday that has my mind spinning. She said, "Why do people resist joy?" She's in the wellness community as a yoga instructor and a life coach and in her daily work she sees people striving for happiness, but stuck. "Everybody takes everything so seriously. What's wrong with sitting down and eating a big piece of chocolate cake?" she said. "Where's the joy?"
It's a good question. So I took her question on a field trip as I went through my day. At a baseball game, in the local café, at the ranch where I hold my writing retreats, at the grocery store, out for dinner... I listened to people with this central question in mind: where is the joy? Specifically I listened to the answer to the question: "how are you?" I didn't hear, "Great!" I heard, "Oh, hanging in there." "Okay." I even heard, "Still alive." A few times I heard groans, and once I heard no reply at all. I've decided the question "How are you" has been infected. And it's messing with our joy.
I have a foreign exchange student here from Sweden this year, and the first week, as she was processing our cultural ticks, she asked me, in all honesty, "Laura, in this country, when you get asked 'how are you' are you supposed to answer? Because it doesn't really feel like people are asking a question. They say it like a statement."
And I thought about it and started paying attention. She was dead on. Almost half the time, people ask "How are you" as a greeting, not as a real question. It made me self-conscious, because I usually answer truthfully and at length. Which probably makes me a pain in the rear end in the grocery check-out line. Oh well. All the world's a stage, right? But how am I contributing to this "resistance to joy" that my life coach friend talked about yesterday by swirling around in the longer version of, "still alive?" by giving examples of what's hard in my life -- rather than what's wonderful in my life? Our answers to "how are you" help influence the general pulse of the human heart and our society at large. I want to start saying, "Great" even on a crappy day. Because there is something great about even a crappy day and why not think about that! It just plain feels better. I want to feel better. I need to remind myself to see what's "great" in my life and spread that around town. (And sure -- at length because that's the way I fly. Sorry, grocery line.) It's almost a social responsibility, really. Community service. Spreading the joy.
Here's another question we get asked in passing that has turned into a joy suck: "What do you do?" which we usually translate into "what do you do for work" and answer accordingly. "I'm a writer." Or "I'm a stay at home mom." Or "I'm in the technology field." We take the verb to do and assign it the meaning of job occupation. Which is our societal currency. We're used to filling in that slot like robots. Sometimes it hatches a conversation. But often, it doesn't. We hear crickets. Or get a glazed-over nod. And we walk away feeling pinned like a bug in a science project. I met somebody recently who calls herself a loveologist. I think the next time somebody asks me what I do... I might just reply with that and see what happens.
I've never been a fan of that question, probably because for a long time, the answer to it was: "a writer" and for a long time I didn't get paid for being a writer, so as far as society went... I wasn't really "allowed" to call myself a writer. I was supposed to answer what I did to make money. And so the answer was anything from "a nanny," to "a barista," to "a bartender," to "a flower delivery girl." (I ALWAYS said "writer" anyway, by the way, for those writers out there! You must!) So I changed the question. I ask people a different question, upon meeting them. I ask, "What do you like to do?" Every time their eyes brighten up and they tell me their joy. Sometimes, yes, it has to do with their occupation. But usually it doesn't, which is a sad statement about our society in its own right. Around here, in Montana, the answer is often, "ski," or "ride horses," or "hike in the mountains." Try it sometime. It's much more fun than "what do you do?" I want to see the light in people and I know it's in there. Don't you?
I want to see the joy. And I want to find mine, even in the most mundane moments. I know it's in the way I think. And if the last hour lying in bed, thought after thought whipping through my mind, weed-whacking my joy into shredded bits of tax, and bills, and teens, and mortgage, and career compost all over the otherwise lovely prospect of my sweet dreams... I simply know there is another way. So I stopped my thoughts. I actually sat up in bed and said, "stop." And then I gave myself a challenge: think of five things you like about yourself. It was hard. It spun another half an hour or so of self-flagellation. Because every time I thought of something, I weed-whacked it. "You're a good mother" quickly turned to "I haven't taken my daughter to visit enough colleges yet and she's going to be a senior this fall" and "you didn't read enough with your son when he was little and now he watches too much TV." Ugh. Five things you like about yourself, Laura. Finally, I got three and called it good. Three positive, thoughts about myself to stabilize and soak in, without whacking them. And interestingly, in order to do it, I had to think of myself from the perspective of the little girl I once was. She told me: You're a good cook. You're funny. You eat chocolate cake without apology.
We have to re-train ourselves back to that child in us who joyfully woke up to the possibility of the day. Who loved herself. Whose goal was to play. And be joyful in it. When you wake up tomorrow and see this blog post, take a moment and try it. Think of five things you like about yourself. Or maybe three. But please...at least one. And hold it close all day, saying it over and over to yourself. And when you're in that grocery line, and someone asks you, "How are you," think about that thing... and say, "I'm great." Because you are.
I'm going back to bed now for what I hope will be sweet dreams.
Laura Munson is a New York Times best-selling author and founder of Haven Retreats in Montana.