Can everyday life be joyful?

I was taught as a child that I could only relax when all my work was done for the day.

I was taught by example that everyday life is full of unwanted chores that you put off as long as possible until you can no longer ignore them.

I learned that it was impossible to feel good so long as these chores awaited you; and yet they were endless.

On my own I concluded that there was no joy in this kind of life. But at the same time I accepted this “daily grind” as reality, something that had to be escaped or overcome.

This is my resistance to everyday joy

In order to find joy in everyday life I must let go of these beliefs. Yet when I do, I face the underlying thought that these chores must get done, and by refusing to shoulder the burden I am being lazy, selfish, and inflicting harm on others.

If joy comes, I can’t accept it unless all my “work” is done. And my work will never be done – it restarts each day and some of it carries over.

So joy is simply not compatible with everyday life, unless my circumstances change somehow.

First change your thoughts

I’ve been working for two years at learning to feel better, so I know already that changing my thoughts is more powerful than trying to change my circumstances.

So what thoughts can I change to feel better and let go of my resistance?

I’ve already shown myself twice before that supposed burdens can be transformed if I look instead for what I want, what I appreciate.

For example, instead of thinking that the dishes have to get done and no one else is going to do them, I started to think about how much I love a clean and tidy kitchen. If I then choose to clean, it’s for the sake of something I love and appreciate, rather than a burden I must bear or else be labelled lazy, selfish and somehow morally deficient.

Another recent example was getting my 1yo daughter to sleep. For a year I could only think of it as something necessary, regardless of how difficult or burdensome it might be. I was the only one who could rock her to sleep, so it was up to me to shoulder that burden or else be totally irresponsible, selfish, and a bad parent.

What changed was that I found a thought that felt good: I’d love for her to learn to soothe herself to sleep. I was able to set aside my resistance for the sake of this positive goal, and help her learn to soothe herself.

Extrapolating to everyday life

The stuff of everyday life can be transformed if I allow myself to find positive thoughts instead of old patterns that feel burdensome and self-accusatory.

Starting at the beginning of the day, my morning routine can be because I love getting up early, feeling clean and refreshed, and enjoying my coffee, rather than the burden of being up early enough to get everything done.

I can enjoy my kids’ company early in the morning, and get my son ready for school because I want him to feel secure and safe and cared for, and to learn by example how to care for himself.

I can enjoy the walk to school because it’s lovely to be outside for some exercise with my kids, stretch our legs and get some fresh morning air.

I can enjoy taking my son to school because I want him to enjoy learning and interacting with others and working out his own preferences in life.

I can come home and enjoy relaxing in my home with my wife and daughter. I can write blog posts that inspire me and work on articles that feel good. I can do research into things that interest me and work out my own preferences and where I’d like to go next.

I can tidy the house – if I want to – because I love having a clean and tidy home. It’s not a burden that must be shouldered, it’s not something for which I am judged and criticised. I love the feeling of a clean and tidy home, but it’s okay for it to not be clean and tidy. And it’s okay to let my wife tidy if she wants to.

I can plan dinner because I love our evening meal together. I love cooking for my wife and kids. I love their enjoyment of my food. But it’s also okay to let my wife cook if she feels like it. And its okay to get take-out occasionally too.

I can pick up my son after school because I love being there for him, to hear about his day and how he feels, to say hello to some friends and bring him back home. But I can also let my wife do it sometimes if she wants to.

And the evening together can be a time when we enjoy watching things together, playing games together, reading stories together. It can be a time for fun and enjoyment rather than the last hours of burden and work.

Finally, we can put the kids to bed and get some sleep ourselves, not because we are worried about tomorrow’s burdens, but because sleep is so good for body, mind, and spirit. Sleep is true rest and it’s something we can love and enjoy for itself.

Letting go of old resistance

I can retell the story of my day and like a miracle transform endless burdens into continual joy.

I can gently remind myself as often as necessary that these daily activities are only as burdensome or routine as I make them out to be in my thoughts.

I live and work and think and play and sleep at home. I’m home so much, it’s time to let home be the place of joy and love and happiness I’ve always wanted it to be.

I want my everyday life to be joyful, and I think I know now how it can be.

The obligated melancholic

Melancholic idealists have a tendency to undermine themselves in the service of their ideals.

The melancholic’s capacity to sacrifice everything for the sake of an ideal is potentially noble, but in practice most of us do not live for a single, pure and unadulterated ideal. In practice we utilise a number of ideals to navigate the complexities and frustrations of everyday life.  So while it would make sense – in an ideal world – for a melancholic to wholeheartedly embrace their perfect ideal, in this far-from-ideal world we need to be aware of the potential for imperfectly considered or one-sided ideals to make life unnecessarily difficult.

Perhaps for these purposes we could take as our ideal that “life should not be unnecessarily difficult”, and then scrutinise instances of excessive struggle or unwarranted suffering?

In addition to being sick at present, I’ve also managed to somehow injure my neck or upper back at a particularly busy time of year.  Yet as much as I hate being sick and injured, I try to find some significance in the suffering, and this has led me to recognise an oversight in my existing idealism.

Important versus Important-to-me

One of my stronger ideals is that I ought to assist with important things that are within the range of my power and responsibility.  In other words “because it’s important!” is the coercive logic of a hundred different things I don’t want to do, but feel I ought.

The ideal behind this is that a person should, at the very least, do what he reasonably can to assist with something important. But how do we know what is important? The fact is that nearly everything is important to someone, or to put it another way: the intersection of “things that are important to someone” and “things that are reasonably within my power” is potentially, frighteningly, huge.

This swathe of potential obligations probably doesn’t trouble most people, but for a melancholic possessed of the ideal described above, it can seem as though the only way to avoid an endless stream of demands, requests, and obligations is to withdraw from them. Yet we cannot withdraw from our own beliefs, and the sense of “if I don’t do it, no one will” is harder to escape than any external request for assistance.

All of this is the result of operating on the basis of ideals or principles, in a context where the melancholic is unable to offer an in-principle reason for not undertaking endless obligations.  It leaves the melancholic feeling already overstretched and overburdened, regardless of how many actual obligations he might have.

What is needed is a principle or mechanism for limiting the pool of potential demands and obligations.  Being already too busy, having a young family to look after, generally not having enough time: these are good reasons to refuse future obligations, but for a melancholic there will always be the temptation to sacrifice more and more of their own time, energy, and even health if they can get the job done.

A better principle lies in the distinction between “important” and “important to me”; a distinction that is, I think, already implicit for most people.  I think that for most people “important” implies “important for me”, whereas for a melancholic it can be hard to justify the self-centred addition of “for me”.  In fact, melancholics may not have a very strong or very clear sense of their own interests and personal preferences in the first place; they may find themselves becoming enthusiastic and idealistic about almost anything, no matter how remote it is from their own experience.

But there is nonetheless a distinction to be made, and a melancholic can make the distinction if they know how. The distinction between “important” and “important to me” limits the pool of potential obligations to things that I actually care about, as opposed to things I might come to care about if I try, or things others care about, or things I don’t care about at all but which are within my power to further or assist.

Other temperaments might be led astray from their own sense of priority through analogous means: phlegmatics simply by going along with others and not rocking the boat, sanguines through friendship and fellowship, and cholerics through ambition and the esteem of others.  Perhaps each of these temperaments is equally susceptible to harming their own integrity through the promise and appeal of their respective motives?

But as a distinct minority it is perhaps harder for melancholics to recognise when they are allowing their ideals to get the better of them. Our ideals are, after all, our primary way of making sense of the world and it is difficult to challenge them without first establishing a rival ideal or learning from the experience of rare exemplars.

From my observations, non-melancholics react to potential obligations differently, and hence offer advice like “don’t do it if you don’t want to”, or “just say you’re too busy”, which to a melancholic comes across as “just pragmatically lie or make something up in this one situation with no underlying logic or principle justifying it”.

Granted, saying “this isn’t important to me” probably wouldn’t go down too well, but more important than what is said is the ideal or principle behind it. It might even turn out that a lot of the things that seem “important” but not “important to me” aren’t really that important to anyone else either.  Either way, to feel ‘off the hook’ for a vast array of potential yet unlikely obligations is an immense relief, and that alone can make saying either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ an entirely new proposition.