3 questions to help you reconnect with joy — and yourself

By Ingrid Fetell Lee

This week, we launched the Joy Jumpstart, a 7-day, self-guided journey to rekindle your joy and rediscover what makes you feel alive. I wanted to create it after hearing from so many people who’ve felt hollowed out by the pandemic. The sense of burnout and exhaustion is pervasive, and yet it sometimes feels like no amount of rest or self-care will fix it.

I think this is because we’re not just tired. We’ve been drained of joy.

We lost so many simple, daily sources of joy during the last 18 months — social events, travel, spontaneous conversations with coworkers and acquaintances, little routines that we now see meant more than we thought. We also experienced devastating losses, from the hundreds of thousands of lives lost due to the pandemic to lost jobs and careers and savings to diminished health due to long Covid. At the same time, there is also another kind of loss (a loss of innocence perhaps?) as many of us look at the fallout from the pandemic and realize that our old ways of life were not sustainable. I mean this not just individually, but as a collective. The reckoning we are having around work with the Great Resignation is vital, yet also traumatic, as we survey the damage it has done for so many years, and are left to our own devices to try to forge a new way forward.

The problem is that when we’re burned out or depleted, we tend to shrink inward. We have so little energy, it’s like we go into powersave mode. No extra activities, no superfluous expenditures. (More on this in my post on emotional spirals.) So we bingewatch instead of doing a hobby. We eat takeout instead of trying a new recipe. We let the house go, and feel depressed when we look at the piles of unfolded clothes and half-decorated rooms we were too tired to finish. And that leads us into a downward spiral where we feel even more tired and stuck.

All of which to say, yeah, we need to be able to stay in bed and pull the covers up over our heads sometimes, but we need more than that. We need liveliness, inspiration, and FUN in our days — the kind of spark that makes it worth getting out of bed even when the world is broken.

In other words, a jumpstart! A burst of energy that reconnects us to that well of joy within us that we haven’t been able to access in awhile, and reminds us we still have the potential to feel that joy in our lives.

Earlier this year, we ran a pilot of this new program with a group of beta testers. To see if the program worked as intended, we did a series of pre- and post- measures. The simplest was to see if the exercises increased how often people were feeling joy, because research shows that the frequency of positive emotions can have an influence on overall happiness and well-being. In the intake survey, 46 percent of participants hadn’t felt joy in more than a week. By the end of the program, 100 percent of participants had felt joy in the week prior, and more than half had felt joy that day.

In conversations with our beta testers, I noticed a common thread. One of the pilot participants told me how midway through the week, she pulled out her paints and started working on an artwork she’d been thinking about for months. Another said that instead of just scrolling on her phone during her baby’s naps like she usually did, she opened up a book that had been sitting on her to-read pile. Another started actively asking her daughter to play with her, rather than the other way around.

In other words, the Joy Jumpstart had moved our pilot participants out of that powersave mode and prompted them to actively do things to create joy. In the words of Mary, a soon-to-be mom and librarian: “[Before the program] I was feeling very stuck, and pretty disconnected from my sense of self. I’d been feeling very tired and lethargic. And it reminded me that there have been times in my life where I felt very connected to my sense of self, and able to fill my days with things that filled my cup.” But she wasn’t doing those things anymore, and she wondered if that was why her days were so tiring, and why she felt so adrift. Since the program, she said, “I’ve started doing the things that make me feel good again.”

Mary’s comment was a lightbulb moment for me. It made me realize that while we often see the things that bring us joy as trivial or unimportant, in fact they’re often the things that are most closely tied to our sense of self. They’re the things that make us feel alive, whether that’s by making us feel creative, or reminding us of our purpose, or connecting us with those we love. When we do those things, it’s not just that we feel more joyful. We feel more like ourselves — or at least the version of ourselves we most want to be.

Joy is the emotion that signals we’re thriving, or at least moving in the direction of things that will help us thrive. So it’s not surprising that when we do the things that bring us joy, we feel more like that flourishing version of ourselves. For example, if you see yourself as adventurous, but you’ve gotten into a rut where you never leave the house, you end up with a big disconnect. Doing even a few small things that feel adventurous — taking a field trip once a week, getting out for a nature walk, trying a new spice — can make your actions feel more aligned with who you want to be, and daily life feel more fulfilling.

So, if you’ve gotten disconnected from joy, how do you find your way back? In the Joy Jumpstart, we begin with an exercise called Find the Sparks, which uses guided journaling to explore a range of untapped sources of joy in your life. I thought it would be helpful to share a sample of these with you, so here you’ll find three questions you can ask to help you reconnect to joy — and yourself. If you find these inspire joy for you, definitely check out the full Joy Jumpstart program, which has lots of creative tools and fun, focused exercises to help you get back in touch with your most joyful self.

What are your earliest joyful memories?

This question takes us back to the beginning. For many of us — not all, of course — childhood is remembered as a joyful time. It’s a time of discovery, when the world is brand new and so many things are magical. It’s a time of freedom, when our time was less structured and our inhibitions were low. It’s a time of play, before we felt pressure to work and be serious.

Note: If your childhood was marked by trauma or struggle, and you cannot identify joyful memories, then “earliest memories” might be later for you. You might look to your twenties, when you gained a measure of independence, or even a more recent period. The point is to look back to a formative time in your life, when you were discovering what joy meant, and explore what was happening in your life that allowed your joy to blossom.

This question might lead you to identify sensations that feel good to you, or activities, or people who showed you what it looked like to feel or find joy. It might lead you to lost parts of yourself that you could recover with a little attention or effort. One Joy Jumpstart pilot participant realized that many of her early memories involved creativity, but that as an adult she doesn’t think of herself as a creative person. This inspired her to start exploring her creative side, not with any pressure on the outcome, but purely for the joy of making things again.

What are your secret delights?

In this question, we explore the weird or quirky things that you enjoy but don’t always feel comfortable sharing with others. This might be offbeat foods, corny TV shows, or cheesy music. Another way to think about this is to ask, What would you do with a free day if no one would ever know how you spent it?

One of mine is that I love to watch certain TV shows or movies over and over again. (I’ve watched most of Schitt’s Creek three times, and during a stressful period of life years ago, I think I watched Pride and Prejudice at least 50 times.) I never seem to get tired of them, even though most people think it’s weird or boring to do this. For me, these simple shows allow my overactive brain to relax. Rather than being stressed out by the uncertain events of a new show, I find joy in the predictability of familiar dilemmas and jokes.

This question speaks to our unique sources of joy, and to the ways that we have been judged for it. What we hide away from others is a clue to what we feel ashamed or afraid to share. Yet there’s something true and authentic in there, even if the world has told us it’s embarrassing. Where have you been holding back from joy because you’re afraid of what others might think? What possibilities might there be if you felt free to pursue joy in ways that really light you up? You can’t know until you figure out what forms of joy you’ve been missing out on because you haven’t let yourself explore them.

What’s something you’ve never tried but think you might enjoy doing?

This question speaks to the unexplored self. Over the course of our lives, we make choices that cement our path and focus our identities. But what joy has been shut out or overlooked along the way?

Maybe you’ve always loved music, but were told that your family was “not musical” and it deterred you from trying to play an instrument. Maybe you once wanted a dog but your parents didn’t want the hassle, and you forgot about it. Maybe you’ve always been curious about surfing but there was never a natural opportunity, and you just haven’t pursued it.

The answers to this question give you new terrain to explore in your quest for joy. There’s no guarantee any of these things will become a life’s passion. But you’ll never know unless you try.

Ready for a Joy Jumpstart? The program is full of thought-provoking questions, beautifully designed worksheets, and creative tools that will let your inner child out to play. Start yours right here.

Image: Nathan Dumlao via Unsplash

October 23rd, 2021


Lost your spark?

The Joy Jumpstart is a 7-day, self-guided program to help you break out of a rut and reconnect with what makes you feel truly alive.

    Discussion (1 Comment)

  1. Irene Duma on November 2, 2021

    Thanks for this. I recently gave myself permission to oil paint, and oh boy, what a difference it makes. While researching the benefits of creativity, I found your Ted talk on joy, and this web site. Bravo! Yes, joy is super important. I’m so glad that there’s a little movement now for creating joy in our lives … hopefully when the pandemic is over we can get back into communal joy, too. Laughing, singing and dancing with others should also be on the menu.

    Go joy go!


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