Cultivating Joy in the Midst of Negativity

Joy can be hard to find these days. At least that is what many of my clients and friends are telling me. Negativity is a persistent and contagious vibration holding us in the thrall of hopelessness. It’s as though we have been hypnotized into pinning all our emotions and beliefs on events beyond our control. Perhaps, this is also a habit of mind that we picked up during the pandemic. So many of my clients have shared with me their inability to make decisions and plans, to believe there is even a future to plan for.

Collectively the persistent drumbeat of the negative and our emotional investment in its power to shape our lives are taking a toll on our humanity, but we each have everything we need to break through the shroud of hopelessness to cultivate joy and, yes, even plan for better things to come.

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, says we ought to ask ourselves this question: “Without altering the facts of the situation I am facing and without ignoring the reality of what must be done, what is the most useful and empowering story I can tell myself about what is happening and what I need to do next?”

No one can deny that there is much to worry about right now: war in Ukraine, inflation, homelessness, climate change, political division, denial of basic human rights. I could go on, unfortunately. But we still have the power to focus on what we can control and influence, rather than put our energy into things beyond our control.

Circles of Concern, Influence, and Control

Stephen Covey, author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, tackled this age-old dilemma in his framework of “circles of influence” vs. “circles of concern.” Everything is within our circle of concern. Certainly, when we drive by tattered tent cities in our neighborhoods, it is concerning. When we are making the same income but paying much more for basic goods, it is concerning. When whole towns and countries are torn apart by hurricanes and floods, it is concerning. When a group of judges can decide that a basic right for women is no longer a right, it is deeply concerning. But Covey pointed out that these are things we don’t have an immediate ability to change, and when we allow our energy and hope to be sapped in the face of these “concerns,” we have no real power or energy left to change the things we can.

Those who choose to focus instead on their “circle of influence” have the power to make changes that empower them to find joy and the energy to make real change. Covey’s paradigm calls these two choices “reactive” and “proactive.” In thinking about what this really means for us right now in this exhausting, disappointing, and sometimes frightening moment in history, I start with that over which we have absolute control: our own beliefs, thoughts and actions.

If we widen our thinking about what we have control over and what we don’t, we see that we have tremendous power to shape the stories we tell ourselves about “what is happening and what we need to do next.” In his deeply moving memoir Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankel, who survived the Nazi concentration camps, admonishes us to own our power: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves…. Everything can be taken from a [person] but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

We are at a massive inflection point, a moment of great upheaval and transition. We can fear the change around us or we can welcome it as an opportunity to stake our claim to the future. The first major step is to set aside the reactive question “why?” and invite in the most empowering question of all: “how?”

Some Tips for Taking Action

Cultivate Empathy and Compassion

Dang, this is hard, but when we stop trying to ignore or numb ourselves to the pain around us, we can begin to find the power within. We can hold both truths at the same time: many things in the world suck right now, AND we can love, heal and give anyway.

Most importantly, be kind to yourself, and remember that emotions are temporary. You have the power to surf the wave of negative emotions and then cultivate positive action driven by what matters to you.

Set Boundaries

Emotions are also contagious, so we need to set boundaries that might include limiting the social media or news we consume. Sometimes other people in our circle of influence are so angry, anxious, or depressed that we absorb their emotions, crippling our ability to choose joy and action. You might need to limit your time with them. This might seem to be contrary to my first tip, but actually boundaries provide the foundation for the vulnerability and risk necessary to show compassion to others and ourselves.

Plan for and Celebrate Failure

The pivot from re-action to pro-action is a process with no end. You will have days when you just can’t get past your anxiety or anger. That’s okay. Every day is a new opportunity to reflect, learn, and reset intentions.

Be Curious

Curiosity is the antidote to despair. Be curious about how you feel, what you are focusing your energy on, what others might need that you are happy to give. Curiosity opens us to possibility.

Seek Joy

Often guilt is the greatest barrier to joy. With so much horror in the world, how can we allow ourselves joy? Without joy, the suffering has no meaning, and we have no energy for moving toward what scares us to make the change we seek. Life serves up endless opportunities for joy—a funny movie, a great cup of tea, a hug, a walk among the trees, a call with a friend, just to name a few. Joy is good. You deserve good things.

Practice Gratitude

It is nearly impossible to hold an unhelpful emotion when we are grateful. Intentional gratitude can take many forms, including writing down three good things every day; thanking someone for doing something, especially if they don’t expect it; sending a random note or letter to someone to let them know how they have made your life better.

Ask for Help

No one is an “island unto themselves.” Humans are social animals; we need each other. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and don’t overlook the joy you might give another by allowing them to be there for you.

Be Mindful

Our attention is our superpower. Without it we cannot practice gratitude, know when we need help, set boundaries, or enact any of the other “how’s” we can use to counter the despair and negativity that surrounds us. Meditation, exercise, conversation (with friends, coaches, therapists, family), and journaling are all powerful tools for being fully conscious of our circles of concern, control, and influence.

Finally, Do Nothing (occasionally)

Taking a break from the have-tos, needs, and shoulds is the ultimate pathway to our true selves. We are here on this Earth for a short while. We deserve to pause once in a while to feel the ground beneath us, the wind on our cheeks, and the beat of our heart. These moments of joy and connection are our birthright.

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