Earlier this year, I received the following question from a reader named Julie:
I find that how I experience the first few minutes of the day, just after I open my eyes, can strongly influence how I feel for the rest of the day. What are some tips to ensure that I start the day with some joyfulness?
This question strikes me as wise. How we start something sets a tone for the entire experience. Emotions color our perspective, and can initiate spirals that either take us upward toward well-being, or downward toward despair. Some research suggests, for example, that being in a joyful mood makes us more likely to notice things in our surroundings that will help to sustain that joyful mood.
If we wake up on the proverbial wrong side of the bed, it’s easy to kickstart a downward spiral that engulfs the day. On the other hand, a joyful start to the day increases the chances that we’ll notice joy and be more resilient when things don’t quite go our way. As the preacher Charles Spurgeon writes, “Begin as you mean to go on.”
So how do we do this? Read on for ten ways to start the day on a joyful note.
Put flowers by your bedside
This one is backed by research from Harvard psychologist Nancy Etcoff that suggests that putting flowers where you can see them on waking helps reduce anxiety and stress, improving morning moods.
Add some color to your bedroom
In our old house, we had a bright yellow bench just opposite our bed. In the mornings, the light came in and made it feel like it was glowing, and it felt like a source of energy that pulled me out of bed on the gray days. It no longer fits in our new bedroom, but I’m excited to find something else colorful for the space to help start our days on a cheerful, energetic note.
Let the light in
This can be tricky for some people, but if you find yourself sluggish in the mornings, I recommend not having blackout blinds. The reason is that letting the light enter your bedroom naturally helps to slowly break down melatonin, easing you awake. I never had blackout blinds until Albert and I moved into our old apartment in Brooklyn, and I always have considered myself a morning person. We faced the Manhattan Bridge, which was always lit up at night, and so we used them to help us darken the room for sleep. And while it did help us sleep more deeply, I would always wake up feeling groggy and out of it. I would hit the snooze button over and over again. Sometimes I felt sluggish until midday. When we stopped using the blackout blinds, I felt so much better, and began to bounce out of bed again.
The counterpoint to this advice is that we know that sleeping in a darkened room tends to improve sleep quality, and may improve overall health as well. So if you have a lot of light coming into your bedroom at night, this tradeoff may not be worth it. One solution is to have drapes that filter light but don’t shut it out completely. Even a few streaks of daylight coming in can help signal to your body that it’s time to get up, while still cutting down on artificial light at night enough that you get good quality sleep. Another option is to use a dawn light, which gradually increases the light in your room starting at a time of your choosing.
Read a poem first thing
A few years ago, when I found that my morning scrolling habit was not only making me late to work, but making me cranky as well, I started keeping a book of poems on my nightstand. Before I let myself reach for my phone, I’d read one or two poems. The slow, reflective verses were the perfect counterpoint to the dizzying feeds I’d normally be consuming. They put rich images in my mind, filling it with metaphors and tensions that sparked my creativity, rather than headlines that made me fret and try-hard tweets that seemed too clever by contrast.
Reading one or two poems at a time left space to contemplate them, rather than rushing through them. Even at only a couple of poems a day, I could finish a small book of poems in a month, which meant that I’d read a dozen books of poetry in a year — much more than I’d manage otherwise.
Listen to a book
When I was working in an office, one my favorite things to do was to walk to work one day a week, leaving 45 minutes early. I’d take the extra time on a bench in a park along the way, reading a chapter of a book before heading into my workday. Taking time for myself first thing was a way of exerting some control over the day. Once I got into work, I never knew exactly what might happen. The day could sometimes end up running long, or being so tiring that by the time I got into bed at night, I was too tired to read. But starting the day with a book meant I arrived at work having already done something for me.
These days, I don’t work in an office, and as a new mom, I don’t have much time to read. But I do have time to listen. So I often play an audiobook as I’m going through my morning routine. I listen while brushing my teeth, stretching, emptying the dishwasher, and getting dressed. Listening to a book helps break the monotony of my morning routine, and gives me something to look forward to. I typically listen to non-fiction, though, because I find fiction too absorbing; it can be hard to get into the flow of the day when I’m thinking about a cliffhanger in a gripping story!
Make a morning playlist
Music is a natural mood booster. If listening to a book first thing isn’t your speed, try making a playlist of upbeat songs that you listen to while getting ready for the day. In one study, people who listened to upbeat music for twelve minutes a day reported improvements in their mood. Another study reviewed the effects of music therapy on people suffering from depression related to conditions like dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and stroke and found positive impact with no side effects.
Do morning pages
I started doing morning pages, a practice developed by Julia Cameron and described in her book The Artist’s Way, when I was working on the last few chapters of Joyful. I was feeling tapped out and overwhelmed, and found I often struggled to sleep because of the anxiety of facing my draft each morning. Morning pages are three letter-sized pages of handwritten, stream of consciousness writing done first thing. When I started, I did them in a journal, but quickly began to prefer doing them on plain printer paper so I could toss them if I wanted.
The point of morning pages isn’t to do great writing. It’s to limber up, to make space in your mind. You don’t need to be a writer to use them. It’s simply a way to connect with your inner voice, release anxieties, surface ideas, and find flow. I don’t do them every day. Usually only when I’m working on something new. But when I do them, I find they are like caffeine for my creative spirit. They start a buzz that breaks my inertia and kickstarts my momentum, carrying me excitedly into the work of the day.
Fix a joyful breakfast
My breakfast takes too long to make. “Too long” is a relative measure, of course, but in the scheme of my life, the steps involved in my muesli bowl are a little complicated: cutting fresh fruit, scooping out the coconut yogurt, and adding a crunchy topping that makes it all feel like a kind of treat. Still, I keep doing it because it gives me joy every single day. I’ve streamlined the process by making my own muesli once every two weeks, and mixing the ingredients for the topping (cacao nibs, coconut, and crystallized ginger) so that I just have to open one container instead of three. Sometimes I mix it up with homemade waffles that I’ve frozen, or a smoothie, but I can never seem to settle for a “grab and go” style meal. Yes, it’s a little time consuming. Still, I remind myself that the extra five minutes probably don’t matter in the scheme of things. Being well-fed and happy at the start of the day, on the other hand, is priceless.
When Graham was born, we started a little morning tradition. Unless it was raining heavily or otherwise inclement, we would take him outside for a stroll around the yard every single day. We started doing this because newborns don’t have well-regulated Circadian rhythms until at least 6 weeks. This means that day and night get easily mixed up for them, and you can imagine how that feels to exhausted new parents. Getting a baby into some filtered sunlight early in the day helps to cement the rhythms that lengthen nighttime sleep and allow for sufficient wake-time during the day.
Adults do have established Circadian rhythms, but we still depend on light to synchronize them. And getting outside first thing can help us too. It doesn’t have to be a long walk or “exercise,” but just setting foot outdoors can boost energy, while listening to the birds and breathing in fresh air can expand your perspective at the start of the day.
Do one yoga pose
I got inspired to try this after listening to Kendra Adachi’s The Lazy Genius Way as one of my morning audiobooks. In the book, she praises the value of ridiculously small steps as a way to build meaningfully toward larger goals. She describes how she would always start a yoga regimen really gung ho, and then quickly peter out. But one day she decided to just do one downward dog (a yoga pose that involves putting hands and feet on the ground and making the shape of an upside-down V with your body) before bed each night. She did this for something like a year before adding onto it. But her consistency meant that she wasn’t “trying to do yoga.” She was actually “doing yoga.”
This year, in an attempt to improve my core strength and flexibility postpartum, I decided to do one yoga pose every day for a month before moving on to the next. I chose my least favorite yoga poses — these poses are the ones I often avoid because they work muscles that are particularly tight or neglected — and I don’t force myself to do anything more than just one pose a day. Some days I end up doing 30 minutes of yoga. Some days I do just the one pose. But the habit has made me feel more flexible and accomplished.
You could apply this idea to anything you’re interested in to try to make progress and feel a sense of accomplishment early in your day. It might be writing one sentence in your journal or doing one quick drawing. It might be sending one thank you note or answering one old lingering email. The key is to make it quick (doable in 3 minutes or less) and attainable.
Do you have tips for starting a day on a joyful note? Please share in the comments!
Images 2 and 3 by Johnny Miller