Jan 152011

by Scott Erb

Scott Erb is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine, but as you can read in this essay, he thinks across subjects and disciplines in a creative and often unconventional way.

The most important thing about living in this world is to live with joy. Life is a precious, wonderful adventure, and the world is full of beauty and opportunity. In making choices about what to do in life, who to have as friends and companions, and where to put your energy, make sure it is designed to bring real joy to your life.

Yet, what is joy? Is “living with joy” more important than helping others, or living an ethical life? Does joy come from a 50 inch plasma high definition television, a hike in the woods, or a successful career? How can I make this advice practical, not simply rhetorical? Here are five practical tips:

1. Be adaptable.

The unexpected happens all the time. Neither the world nor other people will conform to your expectations and desires. Sometimes people will be petty, they may betray you, they can be mean and incompetent. Sometimes plans you are excited about go bad. If you let these negatives get under your skin, you’ll live a life of irritation and simmering anger. The world is unfair! My life isn’t what it should be! People use me and don’t appreciate me!

You might think learning to deal with those kinds of annoyances is difficult and requires a massive shift in behavior and thinking. In reality, there is a simple way to move away from annoyance to acceptance of reality as it is: adapt. To adapt does not mean to conform to others’ wishes. Rather, accepting the reality principle – the fact that reality does not change because we want it to or think it is unjust or wrong – we simply adapt to the circumstances and make new choices based on those circumstances. Lose rigidity, and you’ll lose those things which cause the anger and annoyance when the world or other people let you down. The world works on its own terms; others make choices for their own reasons.

The power in adaptability comes from not losing energy over wanting the world or others to be what they are not. That anger and annoyance is useless, and in fact starts eating away at oneself. And once you adapt, make your own choices based on what you believe right, given the circumstances, and move forward. Adapting to reality gives you more power than you’ll ever get complaining about the fact things aren’t as they ought to be.

2. Take responsibility for your life and choices.

People who lack joy often feel that they do not have control over their own lives. They blame themselves or others for their circumstances, regret choices made in the past, or carry a grudge against others. It is important that one take responsibility for who one is, where one is in life, and the choices made. Don’t regret the past, but learn from it. Obviously, we are born in a world with limitations, physical and social. Some people are born in intense poverty, suffer abuse from their parents, grow up in a war zone, or have severe handicaps. It sounds cold to say even those people should take responsibility for their life. But that is the only way to overcome hardship and still find joy in living. It is the only way to find the strength to make changes, and to feel a sense of empowerment, whatever the circumstances. And those who live in good conditions – relative wealth and security – should recognize how absurd it is for them to complain about small things and blame others or themselves for problems. Those in good conditions should relish taking responsibility and learning to live, so that if things go bad at some point, they have the skill to persevere.

3. Always keep perspective.

In life most people who are angry, upset, or down are reacting to petty things. Whether it is a policy at work, a bad grade, a snide remark, an accidental spill, or a slight injury because of someone else’s carelessness, people get worked up, angry and emotional over things that really aren’t worth it. Everyone makes mistakes and life is full of little disappointments. Yet often it’s hard not to let things get to you; the pain of hot coffee spilled on your arm or your child being careless and spilling grape juice on the carpet after you warned him to be careful, creates an emotion that at least for awhile can defy rational control. Keeping perspective is not a magical act that vanquishes such annoyance, it’s a skill that you develop over time.

Put yourself in the place of the other person – think about the accidents you’ve had, the times you’ve been careless, and recognize that most things that annoy us are not malicious. Even malicious acts usually come from people who are reacting to their own fears and frustrations. Practice trying to understand that. Ask yourself if this will really matter five years from now. Most of the time, you’ll realize it won’t even matter to you by the evening! Is it worth ruining your mood and the mood of those around you? Keep in mind all the good life contains. If it helps, remind yourself of the real misery faced in many parts of the world, and how blessed you are to have such petty annoyances as your main problems. Don’t let a few problems or annoyances destroy your joy. It isn’t worth it. People tend to take things – and themselves – far too seriously. Perspective is a skill that is essential for living a life with joy. It is a skill you cultivate over time. Like a child learning to read who suddenly realizes he or she can read signs and books heretofore incomprehensible, you’ll suddenly notice little things aren’t bothering you, and life is better.

4. Connect with others – Love.

Humans are social creatures; we need to connect with others on many levels. I believe that we crave variety in life because we really crave connections with other people. Our desire for travel, trying new food, new video games, and all sorts of distractions is simply a re-directed desire to connect with others. In fact, one reason our consumer society finds hyper-materialism so unable to provide lasting joy is that it probably is a sublimated form of desire for others. The quick variety of a new video game can never replace the personal and spiritual satisfaction of a friendship. So play sports, play music, debate politics, share meals, talk about life and experience, and recognize in others the humanity that we experience in ourselves. Another word for this is love. You cannot have joy without love, and you cannot have love without connecting to others. An inability to connect and share intimacy makes a joyful life virtually impossible to achieve. Most importantly, it allows you to love yourself as well as others – the feedback from friends and family will give you a strong sense of your own value, and you can never truly love others and live with joy if you do not also love yourself.

5. Forgive.

Life is better if you forgive others, drop grudges, and recognize that all humans have flaws and weaknesses. Nobody is perfect, everyone does stupid things, and everyone is mean or petty sometimes. Let it go. Forgive. Completely. Don’t just forgive on the surface and be nice, holding resentments inside. One might feel virtuous doing that, but true forgiveness is one of the most powerful acts you can undertake. An ability to truly forgive is key to deep happiness. You don’t let others have power over your mood, you feel liberated. Like perspective, forgiveness is something you need to learn how to do. It may start with “I know I should forgive, but I can’t help but holding a grudge.” That’s okay. Just keep trying. You’ll see even partial forgiveness helps, and soon it’ll be easier to truly forgive others, allowing you to claim responsibility for your own life.

Also, you cannot live with joy if you cannot forgive yourself. If you can forgive others you know were being thoughtless and maliciously cruel, you’ll not torture yourself when you sometime are malicious and cruel. And guess what – no one is above giving in to anger and lashing out with cruelty sometimes. If you can’t forgive yourself you’ll fixate on such things and not let yourself feel joy. If you can forgive others for anything, you can forgive yourself for anything. In short, the ability to forgive gives you the power to vanquish the joy-killing emotion of guilt. Those who can’t forgive also are most tormented by guilt, and nothing defeats joy more soundly than a deep sense of guilt over past choices and acts. That is why forgiveness is so powerful – being able to forgive is the only way to really overcome feelings of guilt.

I’m convinced that if people focus on these five “skills” – be adaptable, take responsibility for your life and choices, live with perspective, connect with others (loving them and yourself), and truly forgive, joy will follow. Moreover, I think living this way will yield an ethical life. This is better than puzzling over ethical dilemmas and quandries, or trying to figure out the “right” set of rules to live by. I think knowing how to love, forgive, have perspective, adapt and be responsible yields ethical choices.

Finally, I’d ask my children to never lose sight of how life is at one level magical. There is a mystery and a sense of spirit that defies reason, science, or the mere material world. Be open to spiritual ideas, a sense of fantasy, synchronicity, or a side of life that brings opportunities and choices that happen to be needed right at that point. In fact, I think if you live with joy and are open to the magic of life, good things happen. Never shut off the magic or get lost in trying to figure it all out. That sense of magic reinforces joy, and makes it easier to live a good life.

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Read more of Scott’s work on his blog World in Motion.