Train Your Anxious Brain to Experience Joy, Part Two

“This is the true joy in life, being used by a purpose you recognized by yourself as a mighty one. Being a force of nature, instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy… I rejoice in life for its own sake.  Life is no brief candle to me.  It is a sort of splendid torch, which I’ve got to hold up for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”

George Bernard Shaw

This is the second of a two-part series that gives you a way to train your overworked, anxious brain to experience moments of joy. We looked at how our brain, which hasn’t changed much in around 100,000 years,  developed a propensity to look for events that might hurt before considering anything else.  This inclination toward negativity is appropriately called the Negativity Bias.

Throughout these articles is an assumption I’ve been working with for about thirty years: namely, that you are not your brain!  You have two eyes, a nose, a mouth, and a brain. You are that which has the power to train your brain! The only danger here is when we attempt to name or define the “it,” which can change how our brain thinks.

When we consider the possibility that we can affect how our brain works, we can tap into a source of power we haven’t used yet. We can create ways to refocus our brain away from anxiety and onto something that is much more  “en-joyable”: namely, joy!

Here are the steps to help your brain refocus. First, we must find a way to locate moments in which we have had the direct experience of joy.

The following is one way to go on our Joy Expedition. In the last article, we learned about the meaning and depth of joy from Dr. Pamela King.

She suggested that three variables inform our joy:

  • Becoming increasingly authentic, allowing our strengths to guide us.
  • Growing in the depth of our relationships, including contributing to others,  
  • Living more coherent with our inner values.

Let’s take those three elements together to help you discover the events that have brought joy to your life. Can you remember when you did something that contributed to another person in a way that reflected your inner values?

To support your search, we’ll look at a Life Intention vital to you. A Life’s Intention is a purpose that you consider to be meaningful. It’s a way of being that, when paired with an action, brings about that experience of joy.  I constructed an inventory of these Life’s Intentions after interviewing hundreds of people about what mattered most to them. We’ll add a link at the end of this article so that you can see and evaluate all of them. For the present, let’s concentrate on two or three of them that I know people consistently pick when they describe a moment that brought them joy.

  • To be a loving family member
  • To be a generous friend.
  • To be a contributor to my community.

Another example of a joy-filled moment is this:

My Uncle Arnold was turning 80 years old. My Aunt Gloria, working as an elementary school teacher, didn’t have the time to create a party for him. I volunteered to arrange it. My cousins, sister, and I found that he only wanted 20 friends and family for two hours, between 2 and 4 pm on the Saturday of his birthday.

We cooked his favorite food, had the wines he loved, and my sister baked a marvelous birthday cake. We bought balloons and flowers to mark the occasion.

At precisely 2 p.m., there was a knock on the front door.  Uncle Arnold went over, opened the door, and three of his closest friends chimed in unison:  “Happy Birthday, Arnold!”

I stood slightly to his right side, where I could see them and Uncle Arnold’s face.  At that moment, he lifted his head back and gave the best, sweetest smile I’ve ever seen on him.  He looked like a young kid! He gave a soft laugh, and at that moment, I said to myself, “It doesn’t get any better than this!” 

Even as I write this, I remember how he looked and what I experienced. There was this unusual thought: “I could die right now!”  No, please don’t misinterpret what I just wrote.  I didn’t want to die, but my experience was so filled with joy that, for the moment, I felt that my life was complete.  I don’t know if that’s ever happened to you. It’s illogical and, at the same time, absolutely appropriate to the moment.

I know you’ve had at least one moment like the one I described above. A friend once said that these moments of joy are a “gift that keeps on giving” because when you remember them, the embers in your heart light up again.

Find a situation where you experienced joy. Right now, take a moment to write down what it was, who was there, what you did, and what it felt like. Put what you wrote on a 3×5 card and [lace it where you can easily see it.

Here’s what you do next:

  • When you notice your brain is “hot” because you’re anxious about something, place your hand on the side of your head for a moment and say to this tired brain: “It’s OK.”
  • This next step is essential: make sure you can feel some compassion for this brain that’s worked so diligently for you, trying to keep you from the “tiger at the mouth of the cave.” (See Part One, where we talk about why our brain is anxious. Hint: it was designed to keep us alert to danger and things that could go wrong, i.e., the Negativity Bias).
  • Now, shift the focus of your brain’s attention toward the card with your example of joy. Look at this card and recall, in as much detail as possible, what it was like when you were there.
  • Look for another memory of a moment of joy. Write that down on another 3×5 card. Do not list two or more examples on a card. You want discrete events to train your brain with.
  • Look at other ways to create joy-filled events in which you are contributing to the lives of others in a way that reflects at least one of the three Life’s Intentions listed above.
  • Use these new cards to keep what your brain focuses upon as fresh as possible.

Try the above approach out for at least 7-10 days. You are consciously teaching your brain to look for ways to create joy. In effect, you are training your brain to seek ways to experience joy instead of anxiety!

I look forward to hearing how this goes for you.  One thing I know for sure: this stuff works!

Be well,

PS – here is a link to the Life’s Intentions Inventory where you can explore other meaningful intentions you  have that express your inner desire to be a contribution to the world around you.

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