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How to Expand Your Capacity for Joy

I often say that, if you are going through something, chances are it’s normal.

I say that because, so often, we make the mistake of thinking we are the only ones on the planet who have ever experienced something – especially if it is agonizing or taboo.

As a coach, I meet people who think they are the only ones who have ever self-sabotaged their endeavors for happiness and joy.

“I know what the right thing to do is, I just keep not doing it and I don’t understand myself,” I often hear.

Yeah, been there.

And, from what I understand, it’s totally normal.

Even folks that are very successful now, report having gone through periods of self-sabotage where they were undermining their own results with destructive behaviors for some time before they got their act together.

I remember myself days when I would write an article, give an astrology reading, yoga class or coaching session, feel incredible, and then immediately feel a seemingly uncontrollable urge to binge eat. 

Here’s my take on it:

I believe at any given time we have a certain capacity – a tolerance level, if you will – for experiencing joy.

Most of us have spent most of our lives managing pain and struggle.

Perhaps we’ve even learned to embrace pain as the teacher that is can be, and in many cases we have a deep-seated belief that pain is the only way to grow and learn.

If so, it makes sense that we would be attached to it!

At the same time, we long for a life of joy and envision what it would be like to live a more effortless existence, no longer swimming against the tide.

I saw a bumper sticker today that said,

“Suffering is Optional”

I agree, AND.

From what I have seen, on the road to living with joy, we need to take baby steps, small bites that increase over time as we grow our capacity for experiencing positive emotions.

Think of it this way: while joy feels good for everyone, to someone who has lived most of their life in a state of pain and struggle, joy in not the comfort zone.

In other words, we might not feel like we can really trust it right away. Though it feels good, it doesn’t feel like home.

In cases like this, I believe that the joy window will widen over time, AND it will do so much more quickly if we

engage in the process consciously.

What do I mean by that?

If we recognize that the reason we are self-sabotaging is that our capacity for joy is not developed yet, we can make an intention to widen that window of joy. It’s like the difference between trusting that you’ll avoid that pothole on the road on your way to work eventually, or making a conscious intention to remember to drive a little to the left of it, each day. It’s a tiny difference in terms of the time and energy it takes to set an intention, and that difference is really one of focus.

Here’s a question for you: how are you going to use your attention? Are you going to spread it wide over everything like a wide-open camera aperture, or are you going to zoom in on the things that are important to you?

That zoom function is your power to focus, and it’s a real-life superpower that will change your life.

Once you start to use that powerful zoom function you came equipped with, you’ll start seeing results a lot more quickly. Let me clarify: by focus, I don’t mean white-knuckling it or swimming against the tide. I mean zooming in on your intention and making it crystal-clear. 

As you start working intentionally to grow your capacity for joy, don’t expect that your joy window to jump from slightly cracked to flung wide open overnight – though anything can happen. More likely, though, you’ll have to be patient with yourself as you get used to the positive chemistry in your brain and body.

Now, for a little more practical advice: You already know the things you can do to feel happier.

There is a great deal of science on the matter now.

We all know we should move more, eat more vegetables, get more fresh air and meditate. We all know that random acts of kindness are an insta-joy-boost.

But we don’t always do those things. I’m gonna tell you how to implement these joy boosters without the feeling of joy overwhelm that gets us crawling back into our comfort zone:

Take it bit by bit.
Expect aversion.

That’s right: it’s normal to feel averse to happiness, wellbeing and joy as we are getting used to it.

But if we ease in, if we make a conscious effort not to leap into an unrealistic regimen packed with only those joy-boosting activities, but to do a little bit more than we do already, and then increase that amount periodically, every week or month, then we will be consciously growing our joy window.

This is a method that I KNOW works. It works predictably. Find a goal that feels doable – say 5 minutes of meditation every morning – and work that in.

As your joy window expands, be patient with yourself but challenge yourself at the same time. Notice those moments when you want to back out of your joy practices and ask yourself whether it’s because they aren’t working (can this really be the case?), or is it that this much wellbeing just feels foreign?

And if the answer is the latter, know that this is totally normal. Accept it. Maybe even embrace it. Experiment with stretching yourself a little past the point of comfort – a little more joy than you thought you could handle – and then be okay with it when you stumble back into the comfort zone. It’s ok. Just keep getting up and widening that window.

This might take time, but it’ll work. While you’re growing, watch this video:

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