So here we are in the season of wonder and joy, and you’re just not feeling it. And you know what?
It might not feel okay right now—living without joy makes it seem like you’re merely going through the motions. Everything is fine, but nothing truly lifts your heart. My patient Jim (whose name has been changed for this story) described the feeling well. The first time I saw him, he made it clear that he didn’t have any of the classic signs of depression—a combination of feeling worthless, having trouble sleeping, avoiding things you like, and experiencing suicidal thoughts. He felt good about his life and his marriage, and he found his career as a trader to be fulfilling. “But I’m bored with everything,” he told me, and his mood all the time was “bleeeeh,” he said as he deflated in his chair.
So many men, like Jim, are telling me they’re having trouble getting their juice, mojo, or oomph—call it whatever you want—back, but what they’re really saying is that they’ve lost their joy. Although losing your joy isn’t a medical diagnosis, that doesn’t make it any less significant. What makes the situation especially frustrating is that we tend to overcomplicate joy. We succumb to the seasonal pressure to be feeling or spreading it, we assume there’s something wrong with us if we don’t have it, and we believe it’s difficult to capture that sensation again. None of this is true.
Having periods without joy is completely normal. In fact, it would be a little weird for someone to be living in a perpetual state of joy. But sometimes your joy tank runs low and you feel empty and unmotivated. The key is to recognize that these moments are normal and they’re usually temporary.
At first, Jim thought that taking a medication was the only way to get his joy back. Prescription drugs are useful in some circumstances, but in Jim’s case, since he wasn’t depressed, they weren’t likely to help. Instead, he learned how joy works and nudged it back with the right playbook. This worked for Jim—and can work for you, too.
Step 1: Think back on some decisions you’ve made
The worst thing you can do is stand by and wait for joy to come to you. Joy doesn’t work that way. To invite it in, you first need to get yourself out of stasis. One way to do that is to tap into what motivates you so that you can get the fire going. Try this: Think about a few important decisions you’ve made in the past few years. You may find that you were motivated by the possibility of earning a raise, elevating a relationship, coaching your kid’s team, or a combination of many things. Jim realized that providing a comfortable life for his family was always his primary motivator. When the pandemic took down some of his income, he discovered that there were other ways he could support his family, including spending more time with them. Making the choice to do that (and having his family be happy about it) opened the door for joy to enter.
Step 2: Ask yourself what’s going well
After Jim explained how he was feeling, I’d start our sessions by asking him to tell me three things that were working out in his life. He eventually found that doing a gratitude exercise like this outside of our sessions set a positive tone for his day. That’s not just something that can boost joy and well-being; expressing gratitude is effective in helping people reverse severe mental illnesses, including depression. There’s also some evidence that happiness is contagious. Research from Harvard Medical School and the University of California, San Diego, indicates that if you’re happy, your friends and even their friends have a higher chance of being happy. So working on your own gratitude may help you create a happiness loop that supports your ecosystem: you, your family, and your friends.
Step 3: Find one downer
Try to identify one thing that’s separating you from joy right now. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. Jim figured out that part of what was dragging him down was not being able to go to the office due to the pandemic. Since I didn’t have a pill that could send him back to work, we focused on helping him learn to shift his perspective. Time away from the office meant less money, less interaction with coworkers, and more time in the house. But it also meant that he actually had time to catch up with old friends, even if it was virtually, and brush up on certain hobbies that he couldn’t fit in before. That filled the meaning void and notched up his joy. I’m not saying you have to turn lemons into lemonade. This is about discovering small areas that encourage you to work toward making undesirable situations tolerable. It’s a process that takes time, but it’s not impossible with a little practice.
While it may be hard to find right now, joy doesn’t dry up and go away. Cut yourself some slack if you’re not feeling merry and jolly this season. But also know that you’re never more than a few steps away from experiencing joy, which may be enough to carry you through until life gets back to normal.
A few things that work for me
I’ll also add that I’m one of the first to admit that 2020 sucked, and even I at times struggled to find joy. Here’s what keeps it from sliding too far away from me, and what helps bring it back when I need it.
Get out of the house every day. Spending less time on the road and not going to my office or hanging out at my favorite spots is a joy drain for me. So even as it gets colder, I continue to go outside for walks or runs. Being outdoors has allowed me to find excitement in the novelty of things that had been around me all along and that I’d been too busy to notice before, including parks and hiking trails, as well as a lake that I didn’t know was so close to my house.
Practice yoga with my wife. We stream classes online or do a community session on Zoom. Yoga can increase levels of the brain chemical GABA, which can help you relax. (It’s almost impossible to feel joy when you’re stressed.) Moving around can also enhance feel-good chemicals such as BDNF that promote a healthy and upbeat mood.
Train Kai, my newly adopted rescue dog. Sometimes when joy starts slipping away, Kai won’t stand for it—she’s barking at me, ready to play catch, or nibbling at my leg to take her out for a walk. Pets can reintroduce structure to your life; plus, they often serve as a quick way to bring a smile to your face.
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