Life can be pretty brutal. Just ask anyone who has ever lived as a human being. Still, even in the worst of circumstances, you can cultivate joy. In fact, it is the darkest times that make the moments of joy seem so bright, because, in life, you can't truly appreciate the sweet without the bitter.
I have had anything but a perfect life. I am twice divorced (three times married). One of my ex-husbands has taken me to court for nuisance lawsuits several times (he never wins). I had a less than idyllic childhood. I lived in poverty for most of my 20s. I've been fired and laid off from jobs during rough economic times. I have had health problems for most of my adult life, including a chronic condition resulting from an automobile accident when I was 21 that leaves me in pain every single day. I have extreme food allergies that leave me unable to eat anything with gluten or dairy. My life, on the surface, is far from perfect.
And yet, I am perfectly content. In fact, I am more than content. I'm extremely happy. That's not to say I don't have bad days or bad moments. Sometimes, things suck beyond all measure, and in the moment I experience that emotional pain, I allow myself to wallow in its grip until I choose to be happy once again.
That's what I am most of the time. I'm happy, and it is a deliberate choice I make. When it comes to happiness, I am a ride or die kind of chick. In general, it is my natural state of being.
I understand that to many of you who are experiencing dark times, it may seem like I am trying to blow sunshine up your hind end, but nothing can be further from the truth. Happiness, in any circumstance, is possible if you simply choose it.
The formula for happiness is quite simple. In each moment, choose who you wish to be. I've talked before (in this column and elsewhere) about the one true fact in the universe - that this moment is all we have. We can't do a darn thing about the past, and we have no way of predicting the future. Both are illusions. But this moment, right now, it is the only real thing you have. So why, in this moment, would you choose anything but happiness?
Do you know how I know the past is illusory? I'll answer that with a question. Have you ever heard two different people describe the same event? If you have, you've probably noticed a big discrepancy in the varying descriptions of the exact same thing. This discrepancy arises from the fact that, as soon as a moment has passed, we immediately begin to process it through our own set of filters, which give us each a unique point of view. Those filters are made up of attitudes, past experiences, self-image, and a myriad of other factors that influence how we think and experience the world.
In the moment, when an event is occurring, before we've had a second to process it through our minds and egos, we all experience it in the same way. Immediately after the fact, however, we begin to tell stories about what we saw. We assign motives that we can't possibly know to be the truth. We add our own feelings and prejudices. We begin the process of interpretation and justification that allows us to shape what we have just experienced to suit our own world-view and self-image.
In the moment, however, all we have is experience. We have no judgments about what it might mean, nor do we have any concerns about how it may affect our futures. We just have this moment right now, which is pure experience.
Sometimes in the moment, that experience hurts, it's true. But I always believe this: I can experience anything for just one moment. So I allow the hurt until I'm ready for it not to hurt any longer. I find that if I give myself the full experience of pain in the moment, it wanes quickly and I am once again ready to cultivate joy.
If you're going through something painful right now, how do you cultivate joy? You do so by giving yourself moments that bring you joy. Engage in an activity about which you are passionate and allow yourself to be there in that moment without allowing your thoughts to wander to the past or the future. Spend time with someone you love. Laugh. Wrestle with a puppy. Smell a flower. Sit outside with the sunshine on your face. And for those moments, allow yourself to experience joy, in spite of the circumstances.
Someone--I can't for the life of me remember who--once gave me an example of cultivating joy in the moment that I found extremely profound.
"Imagine," he said, "Sitting on the grass in the sunshine. Listen to the birds chirp. Tilt your head back and look at the cloudless blue sky. Allow the sunlight to warm your face, your arms, your hair. It's perfect. It's beautiful. Now, imagine you are in the exact same spot, but this time, imagine that you are homeless. If you stay in the moment, it is still beautiful regardless of the circumstances. The sun is still shining. The birds are still singing. The air is still perfumed with the scent of freshly cut grass. Does your larger circumstance of being homeless make that moment - you, sitting on the grass in the sunshine - any less beautiful than if you have a big house to go home to?"
My answer to his question was no, as long as you stay in the moment. Here's an example from my life.
I was married to a huge douchebag. He had recently told me that he'd slept with our next-door neighbors (the man and his wife) while I was away visiting my parents. Suddenly, my life had the very real possibility of becoming an episode of the Jerry Springer Show. I was furious, hurt, hostile, terrified, and everything in between. My insides felt like they would just chew up my entire body until I disappeared completely.
Still, I had a child and I had to maintain some type of normalcy for him. So there I was, in the kitchen, fuming, hurting, crying, and everything in between. It was a beautiful spring afternoon, and I had the kitchen window open. A slight breeze was blowing the curtains back and caressing my cheek as I stood at the counter shelling peas. The sunlight slanted in through the window and shone on my hands, which were engaged in the satisfying snapping of opening the pods. The sweet, earthy scent of the peas surrounded me, along with the smells of springtime that arrived on the gentle breeze. As I centered myself in these sensations, everything else faded away. The tears stopped, and peace descended. In that moment, in some of the deepest turmoil I had ever experienced in my life, I felt joy.
This was the moment that I discovered the secret of inner joy in spite of outer circumstances. To cultivate joy in the midst of darkness, do this: engage in something you love and be fully present for the experience. Let the past fade away and just be here now. Don't filter. Don't think. Don't justify. Just be. Do this as often as you can, no matter what your circumstances. In doing so, you just may cultivate a happier life.