3 Exercises to Understand Your Joy

I am going to cut to the chase. I’ve been struggling with identifying things that make me happy, and bring me joy.

This matters to me because I’ve been going through a season of being very unhappy. While I can point to things I have gratitude for and love deeply, like family and friends, my unhappiness has a louder voice.

My lack of happiness or wondering of its origin has become so loud it’s like a squeaky wheel that needs oil, or like something constantly rubbing against my skin. I’ve sat there pondering in the gaps of my day trying to untangle this idea of joy, and why I have so little.

Now, I have a variety of mental health conditions, and of course, these are major factors to consider my circumstances. I also need to consider anything physical; health problems and the time of year impacting my body. But I want to move past that momentarily and think rather of joy being something maybe I’ve understudied

If you’re someone that’s dealt with a lot of trauma, big changes, or more aggressive life moments (in any life bucket), you may have slipped into survival mode. 

Maybe you’ve been there for a few days. Maybe you’ve been there your entire life.

As someone who has spent a lot of time in survival mode, that means I’ve spent a lot of time focusing on things like; solutions, speed, work, necessities, and controlling emotions. 

Therefore, I’ve spent a lot less time; studying, resting, reflecting, indulging and exploring my emotions.

Mix that together with the normal obligations and distractions most humans have to experience *cough* life responsibilities, well, you’re looking at basically an exercise routine in repeat. You're strengthening certain emotions over others.

Now, this is hypothetical, of course, but the more I thought about it - I was shocked to realize I didn’t know how to ignite my own joy.

This resulted in an evening of running into the kitchen to my innocent husband and panicking, “Am I a fun person? BE HONEST! I need the truth, right now!” Followed by, “Can you teach me how to be fun, you’re a teacher, come on what would you say?”

Poor guy, and he’s signed up to me for life.

I learned in our conversation that subconsciously a lot of people 1. Want to be known for some sort of emotional pattern and 2. Have different definitions of what is considered joyful, fun, etc. 

For example, some people want to be known as leaders, to be in control of their emotions or posed intellects. 

Regardless of how we hold ourselves and our natural demeanor, I would say joy is uniquely universal because we all want to have it, experience it, and know it well. Yet so many of us spend no time getting to know it.

So introducing my imperfect journey of trying to figure out my joy, and the three exercises I landed on that were most impactful after a lot of trial and error.

Inspired by these exercises, I’ve created printable joy cards that are a great supplement to these exercises. Check them out! I designed them to prompt myself, but now I want to share them with you.

Exercise 1: The Five Senses

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand my five senses due to my mental health conditions and intrusive thoughts. My five senses used to be an enemy for me - aka, the things that get triggered. Therefore, creating an anxiety-induced experience. 

But then I realized that they hold positive abilities to understand my joy. So I started using them to work for me instead of against me.

The Exercise: 

  • On a document or piece of paper, make a section, column or page for each of the five senses (touch, sight, sound, taste and smell). 
  • In each section, write down a memory from the past and present while using that sense. A memory that brings you joy. It can be big or small.
  • Once you do that, I want you to circle back to each section and write a future memory. A joyful moment, within your future selves reach, that you imagine would bring you joy.

The Result:  

By doing this exercise I understood that being more present or being more aware and using my five senses opened me up to new possibilities of joyful moments, even in the mundane day. 

I kept thinking that joy came from very specific or planned moments (i.e. a vacation), not day to life. 

I also learned things that I am emotionally attracted to. The smell of coffee, or a certain type of conversation. This will come in use especially for our final exercise.

Lastly, I’m understanding through each exercise that I do have expectations and excitements about my future. These will give me clarity of what lifestyle or experience I want, and help me build goals or conversations to achieve them. 

Exercise 2: Taking Inventory

This exercise feels similar to the first but I think it has more cognitive weight too. This one might take you some time, or is an exercise you may want to circle back too and take breaks with - it’s okay to work at your pace.

The Exercise:

  • On a new piece of paper or document, make a bulleted list of recent memories that have brought you joy. This can be as long or as detailed, or as short and sweet as you’d like it to be.
  • Next to this list or in another section, write down a few bullet points of things that have hurt you or taken your happiness recently. This can also be a long term circumstance as well, not just singular moments.

The Result:

You’re giving yourself practical and real examples of things that bring you joy, but also things that have gotten in the way of it. A lot of things in life we can’t control. But by analyzing your list, you may see patterns of things that have gotten away from you.

What do you need more of in your life? What do you need to sacrifice in your life? Where do you need to say no more? Where do you need to invest more?

Some of these conversations may be hard, or may impact more than just you (your coworkers, family, and loved ones). But I’ve learned that these conversations, while difficult, are worth having. Joy can invite us to a shared experience together, and benefit people around us as much as ourselves. 

Exercise 3: The Path Forward

This is the most important exercise of the three and compiles the last two together into your plan for actionable change. It’s the one I am even still revisiting and refining. But it’s given me a compass to more joy.

The Exercise:

  • Review and reflect over the outcomes of your last two exercises. Identify and sort patterns, or highlight ideas that stand out to you.
  • In a new document, or space, write down or journal what your future looks like with all of those joys, senses and moments realized. Where are you living? What do you do for work, or where? What does your family do? You can get as detailed or as simple as you desire.
  • The last step is the biggest, and most important. This would require you to spend a lot of time here, but invite loved ones to do this with you. What are the steps it would take to get there?

The Result:

Thinking about the future and having aspirations to change or implement more grounding thought is a huge step for change.

You are empowering yourself to make changes in your present to impact your future.

The reality is, if you don’t invest this time in understanding your joy, understanding yourself, or making changes, you will struggle to see changes in your future.

This exercise helps you realize that you are worth the investment today for a brighter, more fruitful tomorrow. 

However long this exercise(s) takes I hope it leaves you feeling s bit more in tap with your joy. So I ask you, what’s something you’re going to do today about it? 

Written by Sarah Edwards. Want to get to know me? Say hi! https://liinks.co/setapartcompany

This article was originally posted for Set Apart Magazine at www.setapartcompany.com

Disclaimer: Sarah Edwards is not a certified or licensed mental health professional. Rather someone sharing real life experience and findings for others to find commonality and seek actionable steps needed for them.

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