Rethinking Joy During The Holidays and Beyond
’Tis the season to be jolly, merry, bright. And joyful. But it’s not so easy when there are presents to buy and give, pictures to post and like, family and friends to visit, parties to host and attend, drinks to buy and consume, but never enough to address the stress that these holiday seasons bring. With each holiday season, I see the challenges we all have balancing these expectations and wonder: where has all our joy gone and why are we replacing it with all of this stuff?
The answer to those questions probably lies in the fact that the consumerism and commercialism of the period between Halloween and Christmas leads us to believe that there is a void that needs to be filled with stuff that brings holiday joy and cheer. Big-named brands and major publications sell us ideas of what joy is, what it looks like, who should be experiencing it and how we should experience it, as if joy is something manufactured, wrapped in silver and gold, and presented only on special occasions, with consumption being the only way to retrieve it.
I remember being in the checkout lane of a major department store half-halfheartedly nodding with a fellow shopper who was complaining about all the money she was spending, then watched her end her diatribe, put a smile on her face and say, “but, ’tis the season,” and walk out of the store laden with shopping bags. I marveled at this transaction, one we have with ourselves all the time, this desire to go with the flow while it zaps us of our ability to be real with ourselves. It is like we are all in competition to reach some proverbial destination where we are stress free and holiday joyous, where people praise us for what we did, gave, cooked, and how we did it all with a smile. As I watched her leave the store, I asked myself, “Where did all the joy go?”
The truth is joy hasn’t gone anywhere. We’ve just buried it under things we think bring us joy but don’t. When was the last time you asked yourself, “Is what I’m doing bringing me joy?” Or “Do I feel joy when I hang around certain people?” It’s okay to admit that it’s hard to find the joy amidst all of this merriment. I know I have — the parties, the gifts, the socializing that felt superficial. Many of us have been there but for whatever reason kept on staying there. Maybe because we didn’t want to look bad or hurt someone’s feelings, or feel like we don’t belong. Still, if your thoughtful answer to those questions is “yes,” keep moving forward in your joy. If your thoughtful answer is “no,” then you’re ready to rethink joy in your life.
I started my journey of joyous living during a serendipitous two-week trip overseas to Italy several years ago during a challenging period in my life. Now I’m not proposing you go to Italy, too, although it is an extraordinary place to visit and live. But this is how my conscious journey of joy began. During my morning jogs to Altare della Patria near Piazza Venezia in Rome, I began to see that I was living a life that 1) was not bringing me joy and 2) didn’t give me the time or space to find joy.
I was spending time and energy living everyone else’s expectations, including those I had adopted as my own. By the time I was done with everyone else, there was nothing left for me. All that society said would bring joy — a big house, luxury items, lots of friends, dinners at nice restaurants, a nice car — wasn’t cutting it. To rediscover my joy would require a not-so-radical shift in thinking: find your own joy, and then you can be joyous with others. I remember after one of those jogs going back to my hotel to look up the definition of joy.
Joy is defined in the Merriam-Webster and Oxford Dictionaries as a state of happiness or well-being. In fact, people, places or things can be a source of joy, including family, job, accomplishments, and yourself. So if you find joy in any of those things that is wonderful! What these dictionaries don’t say but that I have found to be true is that this state of happiness or well-being runs deep. Meaning, once I tapped into my joy and started living that joy, I felt better when facing the inevitable ups and downs of life. It never meant that I didn’t cry or get mad, or frustrated. I am — we are all — human, after all. But because of this understanding of joy, I began to rethink how I wanted to live my life, to prioritize joy, not what society deems important.
There are many ways to get yourself started on your journey of joy, and rethinking how joy operates in your life. The three I’ve listed here have helped me in my journey from the beginning:
1) Take a moment and ask yourself what comes to mind when you hear or see the word “joy”?
You may want to say out loud to yourself whatever comes to mind or write it down in a journal or elsewhere. Or do this while you look at yourself in the mirror. Whatever comes to mind, do you notice any changes in what you feel in your body? Did you notice a smile come on your face? Did you feel a warm sensation in your chest? Did you notice a release of tension in your muscles? What else did you notice? What other things come to mind? Write them down or say them out loud, whatever helps you remember what brings you joy and how it felt.
Now that you know the things that bring you joy or create a joy-filled sensation, think about what takes away your joy or your ability to sense joy in your life? What happens in your body? Do you feel more tension? Did you frown? Did you feel a knot in your stomach? Take inventory of what brings you joy and what takes it away (I call them “joy-zappers”). Ask yourself if you need those joy-zappers and why. We all have commitments — jobs, family, etc. All of us can’t quit a job, or jump into a new relationship, or write a book overnight. This isn’t a sprint. It’s your life. It’s worth enjoying. Your joy is not about whether people understand the why of it. It’s yours.
I found that drawing pictures with crayons brings me joy. So I bought a set of preschool-sized crayons from an art store in Italy and started coloring. Not everyone will understand that. They don’t have to. Joy allows us to better connected to others and ourselves.
2) From your list of joy-zappers, choose one to take out of your life.
This may be a challenge; this may not. The point is: the more room you make for joy, the more joy you will experience. Remember, you don’t have to make big changes. Don’t try and fix everything right now. Make one change and see how it feels. It will feel different, but don’t let this new sensation scare you. Stepping out of your comfort zone is not easy; otherwise everyone would do it, immediately. But stepping into the joy-zone is well worth it. Joy is a good thing. And it doesn’t have to come at the expense of your own well-being. So go ahead and get rid of that joy-zapper and make room for joy in your own life. Once you’ve done that, fill the space with something from your list of things that does bring you joy. See what happens.
3) Accumulate more joy and less stuff.
It is the holiday season. The season of accumulation. Chances are you have a house-full or a room-full of stuff you don’t use or don’t need. Still you keep it around because what else are you going to do? Get rid of it? Yes. That’s exactly what I’d recommend. It’s like keeping an ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend around because you don’t know how to say goodbye. The person is taking up physical and mental space in your life and you’re wondering why you feel so weighed down all the time. Don’t feel bad. We ALL do it. Accumulate things we don’t need, have grown out of, or never wanted. I happened upon this book by Marie Kondo called “The Magical Art of Tidying Up” a few years ago. I recommend this book as a resource on your journey of joy-filled living.
In the meantime, find three items in your home that do not bring you joy. How will you know if you have an item like that? If every time you walk by it you ask yourself, “why is that even in my space,” or you feel ashamed because you don’t quite fit into it though you bought it on sale a year ago and it still has its tags on, or you keep thinking you are going to find the other half to that missing pair of (fill in the blank) that you haven’t seen in a few years, then you have found that item. Sometimes it’s something that you’ve been ignoring altogether because to look at it is to be reminded of your inabilities. What you may not realize is that the negativity surrounding that item carries weight that may be impacting your ability to experience joy. Get rid of it and see what happens. Check in with yourself once you’ve done it. Do you breathe a little easier? Do you feel a little anxiety because of the change? Do you suddenly get an idea now that you have space to think? Did nothing happen? Keep going. Keep checking in with yourself.
The joy sold to us during the holidays isn’t the joy that sustains us. The joy that sustains us comes from within. And the only way to find it is to ask ourselves what brings us joy and then to go do that thing. Joy is everywhere and it is in you. Start small. Discover the things that bring you joy. Let go of the things that zap your joy. Don’t worry if it feels different at first. Change is different. Keep going. And, let me know how your journey is going.