How to find your joy this summer — no matter what

By Ingrid Fetell Lee
A vintage set of croquet mallets on a lawn.

Author’s note: This post was originally published on June 13, 2020. It has been updated and republished.

Summer is the stuff of daydreams. Long lazy beach days, short summer flings, spritzes sipped poolside in some farflung and picturesque locale. In the coldest, wettest, loneliest parts of the year, these sunny fantasies build anticipation for all the things you’re going to get to do — all the places you’re going to get to go.

But sometimes summer arrives and it doesn’t feel very… summery. Instead of relaxing on the beach, you’re wrangling a hot and cranky toddler in a city apartment. Instead of taking a dream vacation, you’re starting a new job or working toward a big deadline. And instead of having a summer romance, maybe you’re swiping left and making your way through wedding season solo.

And as temperatures rise and the effects of climate change take hold, there’s a creeping sense that summer is losing its easy breezy feeling. For those grappling with heatwaves and wildfires, this season can feel like something to endure rather than enjoy.

There are any number of reasons summer may feel less carefree and more complicated. But that doesn’t mean we should wish away a whole season of our lives. We can take action towards big challenges and still make space to enjoy our day-to-day. We can feel overstretched and overwhelmed and still find pockets of joy.

How to find your joy this summer

Every summer (even an unconventional one!) offers a natural point in the year to slow down, reconnect with your senses, and lean into joy.

With a little creativity, you can embrace the uniqueness of this season and make it one to remember. To help you do just that, we’ve created a free guide packed with simple ways to help you find and make more joy this season. You can download your guide right here:

As you compile your summer Joy List, here are a few things to keep in mind to help you make this summer a truly joyful one.

1. Put on a bathing suit

Summer isn’t just a season. It’s a mindset. One of my favorite ways to create a summer mood is to put on my bathing suit first thing in the morning. Having undergone IVF treatments these last few years, I’ve often been recovering during the summer months, and each recovery requires a two-week abstention from swimming. Yet even if I wasn’t going to get anywhere near the water, I always put my bathing suit on first thing anyway, (along with copious amounts of sunscreen). It made me feel like there was the possibility of a summer dip, and it inspired the kind of laid-back, layered summer dressing that’s perfect for a summer afternoon.

In her cookbook Every Day is Saturday, Sarah Copeland shares her discovery of the power of this simple ritual. She was employed as a private chef in a villa in St. Tropez, and every day she’d come to work in her heavy chef’s coat, clogs, and black and white checkered pants. On the first day, la Madame, the lady of the house, came into the kitchen, took one look at her outfit, and said, “That won’t last.” Previous chefs had cooked in a bikini and flip-flops. At first, Sarah was scandalized. But a few weeks in, while she thought everyone was out swimming, she slipped into the kitchen in a bikini and flip-flops to check on a batch of bread. And of course, who did she run into? Madame.

They laughed together, and from then on, Sarah gave in to the summer chef’s uniform. Now, whether she’s sitting at her desk writing a book, folding laundry, or whipping up dinner for ten, she relies on this trick to bring a summer vibe to any situation.

2. Take it outside

The easiest way to make it feel like summer? Go outside! And while I hope you have the time and resources for all the pool days and theme parks and beach trips your heart desires, I want you to know that you can lower the bar for yourself here. (A lot.)

Getting outdoors in the summertime doesn’t always have be a highly choreographed battle against sand or sunscreen. It can be as simple as taking a regular, ordinary thing you’re already doing outside.

One of my favorite ways to do this is to have a picnic. If you’ve got the space, take your dinner in the backyard for a change. For a more traditional approach, pack up some fruit and cheese and go in search of some shade. Or, instead of sitting in a restaurant, try takeout in the park on a big blanket. (As the parent of a toddler, may I suggest one with a playground?)

If you’re lucky enough to work remotely, work remotely! Whether it’s sitting in your garden or underneath a cafe umbrella, finding moments that disrupt your regular routine will help you get into the summer spirit. If it’s not too hot, you could even take your next phone call while out on a walk.

Of course, our day-to-days (and our heat indexes!) are unique, but think about the essential tasks that fill your day and see if there’s a way to bring an element of the outdoors to them. Can you make dinner on the barbecue one night this week? Roll down your car windows on your way home from work? Set up some water play or giant bubbles for your kids — and join in?

3. Bring the beach home

If you’re craving beach time but don’t have access to the coast, there are plenty of ways to cultivate a breezy feeling in your own space.

Think about lightening your color palette and adding beachy patterns to signal summer. Swap out darker accessories for ones in lighter colors. (Linens can be a good place to start: tablecloths, pillowcases, even slipcovers for your sofa.) And before you start buying things, look around at what you already have! You’d be amazed what a couple of striped beach towels can do when thrown over a couch cushion or layered over a rug.

And if you live in a climate where you can forgo A/C, try turning it off and sleeping with the windows open. (Add a fan if you need to.) If not, look for ways to bring the scents of summer into your space. Perhaps through a sea salt scented candle or a bunch of fragrant flowers.

(For more tweaks that will help your regular home feel like a summer getaway, check out this guide.)

4. Make the familiar strange

One of the joys of travel is that it makes the strange feel familiar. We try unique ice cream flavors and compare them to our hometown favorites. We learn the names of new foods and flowers. And we smell something peculiar and follow the scent, and soon it becomes known to us.

But even if you aren’t traveling to strange lands, you can apply this principle in reverse: you can make the familiar feel strange. By looking more closely at your immediate surroundings, you can attune yourself to the wonders in your midst.

One way to do this is to explore the habitats in your immediate surroundings. Naturalist and children’s book author Jean Craighead George used to stock up on guidebooks about local nature on summer driving trips with her kids (which she details in this glorious essay), but why not do the same for your hometown? Getting acquainted with your natural neighbors can help you feel more connected to your home. What birds are singing in your bushes? And what do they eat? What shells line your seashore? What lives do those organisms lead? Choose a topic that fascinates you (birds, trees, insects, flowers), grab a guidebook, and start joyspotting!

The legacy of this will stay with you. You’ll begin to recognize birds, like old friends, when they return for the season. Your deepened intimacy with your surroundings will make you feel more connected to your home, offering up new and different opportunities for joy throughout the year.

5. Make a summer playlist

Significant summers of my life come with their own specific soundtrack. This summer, try making your own. (Or several!) And when you look back at this time, maybe you’ll remember the music that carried you through it.

There are so many different directions you can head here. If a vibe doesn’t immediately strike you, here are some ideas:

  • Create a playlist that takes you somewhere else. Maybe there’s a trip you’re looking forward to, remembering fondly, or dreaming of someday. Try searching for artists or genres of music from this place and allow the music to transport you. (You can find more tips for taking a vacation without leaving home here.)
  • Go back to a summer you loved. Think back through your own musical memories — singalongs in your best friend’s car, the CD case that came with you on that longgg road trip, the last song they played at your wedding — and build a playlist that takes you to that time. Tip: Check out Billboard top charts from a significant year in your life if you need to jog your memory.
  • Get really specific. For example, I’ve been into making silly playlists lately and my summer edition is all about fruit. Yes, fruit! The specificity sent me on a Spotify scavenger hunt where I rediscovered a bunch of songs that wouldn’t have otherwise found themselves in my regular rotation.

6. Embrace your freedom

Of all the aesthetics of joy, freedom is the one that comes alive during the summer months. No matter how full your calendar is or constrained you may feel, summer is still a season of liberation compared with the colder months before it, so tune into the little things that make you feel free. Maybe it has to do with how you dress: wearing loose tees and swingy caftans, sandals or going barefoot. Maybe it’s swapping out heavy foundation for tinted moisturizer. Or maybe there’s a small tweak to your daily routines, like a slightly later alarm clock setting in the mornings (or going without!) or a longer walk with the dog.

When I lived alone in the city, in summers I switched to commuting by bike, a much freer mode of transportation than the subway, and I left an extra 30 minutes a few times a week to sit in the park and read a book before heading to work. This little slice of time wasn’t much, but it was enough to give the whole day a freer feeling.

Other freedoms you might think about:

  • The freedom to stay up really late
  • The freedom to eat lunch outside instead of at your computer
  • The freedom to sleep with the windows open

Take note of the small summer freedoms that give you joy, and lean into them!

7. Read for pleasure

Speaking of freedom, how about the freedom to read for pleasure? Temporarily banish the heavy stuff to a shelf in the closet and make space on your nightstand for brisk, beachy reads. If you haven’t felt excited to read in awhile, start with something you can’t wait to devour.

Summer is also a great time to get out of your comfort zone. For inspiration, try browsing the staff picks of your local bookstore via their newsletter or website. Or, if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, grab something from the library based solely on the cover and see what happens!

This also applies to other media. If you’re finding your watch list bogged down by dramas and documentaries, try going for something lighter. Comedies might seem like the obvious answer here, but I also love reaching for things that just feel like summer. (Dirty Dancing, anyone?) Another direction to take is something that transports you back to childhood — our family turns to Totoro for this.

8. Slow your roll

Summer heat naturally slows things down, but if you’re having trouble getting into a summer mindset, then being intentional about downshifting can help. This means not rushing or pushing yourself too hard. It means adding margin to daily life, leaving more time between activities and not over-scheduling yourself. And sometimes, it means doing nothing it all.

You might try giving yourself the gift of an hour (or even 30 minutes) of unscheduled time in your calendar (yes, I’m aware of the irony: schedule your unscheduled time, or it won’t happen!). You can also try scheduling a day or half-day of “no calls, no meetings” time. I tried this a couple of years ago and now it’s a weekly fixture on my calendar; not only has it made my weeks more relaxed, but way more productive.

And if the thought of doing nothing fills you with dread, look for activities that require you to take your time. This might mean drawing from life or spotting shapes in the clouds, playing music or learning a new skill. Or just let yourself linger a few minutes longer over things you’re doing anyway. Sit on the patio for a few minutes after a bike ride, or hang out in the garden after a walk. Don’t rush to clear the dishes after dinner, but give yourself a few minutes to savor the meal. The extra minutes aren’t likely to be make or break in terms of your workday, but they’ll definitely help to make your day feel more like a summer break.

9. Keep it weird

If your summer doesn’t feel “normal”, consider that this may be its silver lining. As time expert Laura Vanderkam points out in her book Off the Clock, when we do the same things repeatedly, our brains save space by filing that away as a single memory. So if you engage in the same rituals each summer, your brain starts to condense those memories together, and the ultimate effect is that summer starts to feel shorter as each year goes by.

We can thwart this tendency, however, by making new memories. And this summer offers a prime opportunity. Having to change up your rhythms might be disappointing at first, but it could be exactly the jolt to your routines that helps this summer feel richer and more memorable. Don’t try to make this summer the same as all the others. Embrace changing plans and focus on making new memories.

What does that look like? Well, maybe it means hanging a sheet in the backyard and having movie night outside, or maybe it means camping out and telling ghost stories in your living room. Maybe it means running relay races down the sidewalk or making s’mores in your broiler. It might feel weird right now, but know that there will come a time in the not-too-distant future when you, and your family members, look back with a smile and think, “Remember that summer when we…?”

10. Embrace joy, not perfection

Lastly, remember that there is no such thing as a perfect summer. Most of us are juggling a handful of things, from caregiving to cleaning to work, and just trying to make it all happen. Remember: you don’t have to suddenly become your kids’ activity director or camp counselor. Take it from someone who spent a lot of time alone as a kid during the summer because I had two single parents who worked full-time: Boredom can often be the precursor to joy.

My parents made sure I had books and art supplies, that I was clothed and fed. I climbed trees, mucked around in the swamp at the end of the road, climbed trees, taught myself how to yo-yo, and mastered the art of blowing giant bubbles. Sometimes, I even got bored enough to lie on a towel under a tree and open up my summer reading books.

Adults, too, sometimes pin our hopes on summer.

We expect to have the ideal summer body or the perfect summer vacation. But alleviating that pressure can open up more space for joy. The reality is that every body, in summer, is a summer body. And every summer vacation, no matter how flawed, can be wonderful if we focus on the small wonders of the moment, instead of trying to make it fit the image in our heads.

How to find your joy this summer: Ingrid lays on an outdoor bench smiling and wearing a vibrant striped sundress.

Taking some time for joy doesn’t have to make us blind to the challenges in our own lives, or in our communities at large. Ultimately, the act of seeking joy in the midst of an unconventional summer may be an opportunity to practice an essential, but elusive skill: holding the intense contrasts of the human experience together in our hands at the same time, allowing each to inform the other, letting neither overwhelm us. Life will always be lived in this balance. And this being true, I think our best hope is not let joy and sorrow blur together in a middling average, but to dance out along the edges, fully alive to the beautiful tension between them.

Don’t forget to get your free copy of the Joyful Guide to an Unforgettable Summer! You can download it here.

July 21st, 2023


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    Discussion (4 Comments)

  1. Marjolyn on June 13, 2020

    I always read your posts but I especially love this line you wrote; 
    “ I think our best hope is not let joy and sorrow blur together in a middling average, but to dance out along the edges, fully alive to the beautiful tension between them.” e, I think our best hope is not let joy and sorrow blur together in a middling average, but to dance out along the edges, fully alive to the beautiful tension between them.”

    It basically  sums up the summer theme   Just make sure to keep dancing and not be absorbed by the darkness. 

  2. Suzanne LaCabe on June 13, 2020

    I miss my coffee dates and water aerobics. However, this is the first time in my life I have stayed in my nightgown until it was time for the evening news and put on my lounging pajamas.(Without guilt.)The birds are singing, the flowers are blossoming, it is quiet at night for sleeping. I have clean water to drink, a roof over my head and enough food. Truly one of the privileged but not unaware of my gifts.

    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on June 22, 2020

      Beautifully put, Suzanne. Like you, I’m one of the privileged. This morning as we drove to a doctor’s appt I saw the cafes I no longer visit, and I told my husband how much I craved an iced tea made for me in a to-go cup. But as much as I miss that, I’m grateful for the slow days where we get to eat lunch together, instead of one of us being on an airplane somewhere. Longing and gratitude all at once!

  3. Linda Thomas on June 13, 2020

    What an uplifting post and loved the Joy summer guide.Just what I needed Thank you


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