Finding joy and magic in the mundane
The world has shifted on its axis, but we must still indulge in life’s pockets of pleasures. Joy is not frivolous; it’s necessary to staying sane and sanguine during turbulent times — and you don’t have to look far to find it.
Shortly after the end of the Second World War, the English playwright, novelist and commentator JB Priestley put together a collection of essays in praise of life’s simple pleasures. Titled Delight, the book was an effort to boost national morale during a period of intense austerity.
Priestley’s reflections on solitary G and Ts, cancelling plans to stay home and frying sausages outdoors became a bestseller, and 60 years on, in 2009, a new take on the book was released: Modern Delight. Like its predecessor, the 21st century version is a collection of the things, people, places and feelings that delight the book’s many authors.
Many of us treat joy like our mothers treat “the good silverware” — only brought out for special occasions.
Modern Delight is a little hardback with a big sentiment, one that suggests that true happiness is found in celebrating the everyday and the habitual; that there is no big secret to happiness, no perplexing formula that only a select few are in on. It really is the little things that make the difference between a good day and the sort that leaves you feeling disconnected, fed up or just a bit blue.
This, no doubt, is what the meditation lovers among us have been preaching all along: seeing, not merely looking at the beauty that surrounds us. If you’ve found yourself exasperated at the seemingly impossible task of clearing your mind, the philosophy of finding joy in the everyday might be exactly what you’re looking for.
Priestley’s uplifting message is particularly pertinent right now as we remain in the throes of a global pandemic, worrying for the health of our loved ones and the murkiness of a future full of unknowns that people keep referring to, chillingly, as “the new normal”.
We might not be recovering from a world war or living through rationing (although for a moment there we were certainly in need of toilet roll rations), but we are emerging, bewildered, from a crisis that none of us really saw coming. One that has flung into question so many aspects of what it is to exist in a society, what it is to be human, even.
Appreciating the minutiae
The pandemic hasn’t just threated the physical health of millions, but wreaked havoc on the emotional and mental wellbeing of people around the world. Amid this chaos, Priestley’s lesson in appreciating the minutiae of life is worth revisiting.
Many of us treat joy like our mothers treat “the good silverware” — only brought out for special occasions. We “live for the weekend”, count down to special celebrations and only relax during an annual 10-day “getaway”. According to positive psychologist Dr Tim Sharp, known as “Dr Happy”, our inclination to pin our joy on a few key moments is backed up by the research.
Joy isn’t simply about cashing in on life’s brownie points; it’s necessary to keep us sane and sanguine during turbulent times.
“We tend to wait for these Hollywood moments — weddings, birthdays, winning the lottery (either literally or metaphorically) — and think they will make our lives wonderful,” he says. “And they do. But they’re also, by definition, extremely rare. So we end up wasting a lot of time in between these infrequent ‘big bang’ moments.”
But like many of our norms, the pandemic had other plans for our formulaic happiness; parties, weddings and overseas trips were cancelled in an instant. So what happens when we can no longer rely on the special occasions to bring us happiness?
Dr Sharp, who has recently published an audiobook titled Habits for Happiness about the small things we can do daily to create a great life, points out that life isn’t a made up of these exciting milestones; it’s made up of the humdrum of each ordinary day.
Investing your happiness in a few key dates is like choosing to see in only black and white; it misses a whole rainbow of tiny joys buried in your daily life.
“The research suggests that there are lots of little things, which, when we focus on them daily, can boost our happiness on a regular basis, meaning you can enjoy a lot more often than once in a blue moon,” says Dr Sharp. It might seem indulgent to wax lyrical about the need for joy in the hour of crisis. But indulge we must, because if we forget what those tiny pockets of pleasure look like, we will have succumbed to darkness.
Joy isn’t simply about cashing in on life’s brownie points; it’s necessary to keep us sane and sanguine during turbulent times, Dr Sharp explains. “Historically, psychology has almost exclusively focused on negative emotions like stress, depression and anxiety. Happiness wasn’t seen as something that was important or served a purpose,” he says. “Thanks to the research around positive psychology, we now know the genuine experience of positive emotions like joy, happiness and contentment lead to this phenomenon called ‘broaden-and-build’.
“The broaden-and-build theory shows that when we experience positive emotions, our minds broaden, we become more open-minded and therefore more creative, more innovative and better able to solve problems,” he says. “And we also build new resources and are able to build on existing resources, which means we cope better.”
Put simply, joy is a core ingredient to successful coping during anxious and tragic times. “It also makes us more able to reach out and ask for help from our networks,” he says, “because if we’re feeling wholly depressed, that often leads to social withdrawal.”
Savouring the small moments
Given the findings that positive emotions help to undo the negative effects of stress, now is the time to be proactive about savouring the small moments of joy in our days. So how do we do this?
“It begins with the decision to focus on and appreciate more the small pleasures in daily life,” says Dr Sharp. “It’s not a difficult decision to make, or even a difficult practice, but much like exercise, life gets in the way, we get busy with work and kids and allow those things to distract us from what’s really going to make us happy.”
“… when we experience positive emotions, our minds broaden, we become more open-minded and therefore more creative, more innovative and better able to solve problems.”
Making the decision to take charge of your mental health and tune into these moments of joy is a form of mindfulness, Dr Sharp explains. “It’s about being aware and being able to focus your attention on the things that will bring about positive emotion. We often overlook them because we’re too busy focusing on something else like our screens, so it’s about having that discipline and continually prioritising what makes you happy.”
For Dr Sharp, it’s simple: “The most successful people I’ve worked with are those that find the time to prioritise the things that make them happy,” he says. He’s right, of course. Most of us can find a moment to savour a cup of coffee, eat lunch away from our desk or enjoy a 10-minute walk through a park; we simply don’t prioritise these things as a means of fostering positive emotions.
One of the problems we face in our pursuit of happiness is what Dr Sharp refers to as “the tyranny of when”; the idea that we will only be happy “when” we’ve lost weight, got a better job or made more money. “The problem is, those ‘whens’ often never come about,” he says.
“The antidote to this is the belief you can do something about your happiness, that it isn’t something you were born with or just happens, but something you can actively create.” After all, even during a global pandemic, a city lockdown or social distancing, we still have much to be grateful for.
Everyday joy, everywhere
We have our morning routines: the first rays of golden light and cups of coffee in peaceful solitude before the day’s banalities come crashing into your brain’s inbox. Coffee in general is a cause for sheer delight; Colombian blend, black on ice in the summer, frothy, chocolate-sprinkled cappuccinos in the winter. The joy of a weekend coffee run, having emerged from lockdown and a smile from your local barista.
On delightful drinks, a glass of wine during the golden hour (or your sundowner of choice) is pure happiness. As are magenta-coloured sunsets and perfectly clear spring days. Simply stopping to appreciate the beauty around us; there’s plenty of it in this dazzling, beach-framed country.
Music is a wellspring for a happy life; fill your ears with glittering soundscapes and even the most mundane and overheated of commutes are worthy of enjoying.
As William DeVaughn said in a song that provides a great deal of auditory delight, “Be thankful for what you got.” And on that theme: the opening of the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter, singing along to Paul Simon’s You Can Call Me Al, almost any Paul Simon song in fact. Music is a wellspring for a happy life; fill your ears with glittering soundscapes and even the most mundane and overheated of commutes are worthy of enjoying.
The smell of old libraries, the smell of new books, the smell of rain after a sweltering heat wave (the accurate name for this smell — petrichor — is surely worth a smile).
The inside of a new sweatshirt. New socks. Clean, crisp sheets made even better if you’ve ironed them. Happiness is a taut bottom sheet. A completed fiendish-level Sudoku puzzle. Hotel slippers. Freshly squeeze orange juice in a glass bottle. Fresh flowers. Any kind, any time, from anyone.
And then there’s the food, which could easily be a never-ending list: hot, flaky croissants; tomatoes drizzled with olive oil; fish pie on a rainy day; ice-cold oysters on a sunny deck; garlic-roasted broccoli; roast potatoes, baked potatoes. Gobbling down ice-cold açaí bowls after a weekend run with much more gusto than the run itself. Combing through cookbooks to find the most elaborate dinner party recipe, almost killing yourself cooking it, seeing everyone happy round the table and realising you could have served up anything, that the delight of coming together is much greater than the sum of ingredients found on the plate.
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