You can probably recite your daily schedule by heart. You know exactly what you’re supposed to do and exactly when each deadline is looming. But how often do you consider how you feel throughout the day?

Sure, you know when stress hits you like a wrecking ball. You know when exhaustion is too intense to mask with another cup of coffee. Yet there’s one emotion you may not immediately recognize, despite its pure simplicity.

It’s the most underrated emotion in the human experience: joy.

My partner in crime and beloved nurse practitioner Jen Justus has joined me to discuss the concept of joy and help us all uncover the sources of joy in our lives.

“It’s hard,” Jen explains. “Joy is not the same as a lot of the emotions that we connect to.” Even happiness isn’t really, truly, joy. Happiness is more of a catchall for “okay” or “alright.” The phenomenon of joy is completely unique and difficult to put into words.

Compared to passion, which begins with an intoxicating burn before it fades, or love, which is the most abused and diluted word in the English language, joy elicits an intangible feeling that you can sense in your gut even when you can’t define it.

But as Jen points out, so many of us have to stop and really ask ourselves: do I have things in my life that bring me joy? If so, what are they? And why, oh why, are they so elusive?

Why Is Joy So Important?

We can’t have a conversation about joy without also understanding its opposite: regret.

The power and significance of regret are intense. By contrast, joy is the ultimate emotion.

As an ER doctor and someone who has buried both his father and grandfather, I’ve come to understand that in the end, people don’t experience their lives all over again. Instead, they think about moments, and those moments are rooted in either joy or regret.

We all leave this earth one day, and the best way to depart is in a state of joy. I’ve been contemplating this, mulling it around in my head for quite some time, and it’s inspired me to seek out ways to find and create joy in my life and the lives of others.

Here’s what I’ve uncovered so far: joy isn’t just a feeling or emotion. It’s an accelerator of moments. Somehow it creates moments that are impactful and memorable. The more joy you can infuse into the rhythm and cadence of your life, the greater probability you will experience those wonderful moments.

And sometimes those moments have to be created. They don’t just happen on their own; you have to be intentional.

You can either wait for moments or you can create moments. This is a fundamental challenge I pose to everybody, myself included. Are you going to sit back and wait for moments to be gifted to you, or are you going to strategically create your joyful moments?

My hope for everyone – patients, friends, family, strangers – is that they navigate their lives in a way that achieves joy.

Why Is Joy So Elusive?

What brings you joy? Your job? Your spouse? Your hobbies? Your kids?

Maybe all of them, and maybe even more. So why is achieving joy difficult? When we take an honest audit of our lives, why does joy seem so elusive, like it’s always hiding just around the next corner?

Jen has her ideas: “In my opinion, it’s elusive because we’re rooted in busy-ness as a culture and as a society.”

As Jen explains, one of her patients with a high-paying corporate job was furloughed due to the coronavirus pandemic. “So she decided to pursue her passion in real estate full time. And now you can just see the joy on her face.”

The pandemic created an unprecedented opportunity to quiet the hustle of our normal routines, offering a valuable reminder that when we strip the commotion out of our lives, we can focus on what really lights our fires.

“Sometimes the busyness in our lives just robs us from our goals, our passions, and what we really want to do when it comes down to it,” explains Jen. “We don’t have time on our side!”

Don’t Wait to Find Your Joy

Joy rarely falls out of the sky and into your lap. It’s up to you to take an audit of your life and ask yourself: Where can I find more joy? What really brings me joy?

As Jen points out, those can be tough questions to ask. But the alternative – waiting – is much worse.

The first step is to obtain clarity: What is your goal? Are you devoting your efforts, energy, and creativity to a path leading closer to “The Goal” or away from it?

It’s easy to get comfortable with your routine, your habits, and your environment. But I’ve said it countless times: being comfortable can be dangerous! You risk becoming too complacent to push yourself closer to your goal.

Even though desperation is terrifying and uncomfortable, those moments of desperation force you to improvise, pursue risks, and transform your life. Just think of how many famous, successful people point back to a moment of sheer desperation in their lives and say, “That was my turning point! That was the moment I made a decision to pursue joy”

Joy Creates Moments

“Some people wait until retirement to do that,” Jen says. “They think, I’m just going to work, do my time.” And they hope that maybe one day, if they work hard and get lucky and wait long enough, they will eventually get to live their lives with joy.

Unfortunately, those people wake up on Day 1 in retirement with nothing to do and no other goals. They achieved what they thought was the goal, but discover quickly that it wasn’t fulfilling.

Simply put, waiting until retirement to live your life isn’t worth it. 

If you have a goal of living a long time and being filled with joy, then say goodbye to the idea of retirement. Find things that give you joy now and forever. Why wait to live your life? You’re not promised tomorrow.

Retirement isn’t “The Goal”. When tackled properly, it’s the gateway to even more joy. Jen has seen this first hand: “For a lot of people I know who are retired and don’t fall into that trap, they’re busier than ever because they find those things that bring them joy.”

The moral of the story? You can’t wait to start living. So don’t allow your busyness and lack of clarity to stop you from achieving joy in your life.

Growth Creates New Problems, and That’s Okay

Growth leads to improvement, which leads to joy and success. Many people mistakenly assume that improvement and success exist in a vacuum without new problems. They think they’ll reach a magical point in their lives without any stressors. Once I make six digits, or move into that neighborhood, or get my kids into this school district, or find a better job, I won’t be so stressed. 

But the truth is that growth always creates its own new messes. It can bring along even bigger problems. And that’s okay!

Every stage of life involves its unique challenges and celebrations. You shouldn’t stop pursuing growth merely to avoid new problems. Improving, evolving, and changing are the core elements of human nature.

The natural byproduct of success and growth is creating messes that need to be cleaned up. They’re our messes and our debts. Unfortunately, people don’t do a great job of cleaning up the messes or paying back their debts. They just add one more spinning plate to a wild juggling act until the pieces eventually start falling.

“We see this all the time with our business owners when they come to us and their health is their debt,” Jen reminds us. These successful entrepreneurs are perfect in everything else, but their health is in shambles. They’ve become a victim of their own success.

But there’s still time to achieve joy.

How to Find Joy in Your Life: A Simple Lesson

Jen and I have spent countless hours talking about this concept, enjoying the conversations, and sharing the message with our patients.

Finding joy is a beautiful thing to think about and an even more beautiful thing to figure out. This singular ability to infuse joy into your life is one of the most important gifts you can ever give yourself.

With more joy, you win. It’s as simple and complex as that.

You don’t need to overhaul your entire life to achieve joy. Start with these small steps to make a major impact:

1. Gain clarity. Get crystal clear on your priorities and goals. Why are you doing what you’re doing? Is it taking you closer or further away from the goal? If it’s taking you further away, then it needs to stop. Now.

2. Get better at paying back your successful debt. It sounds funny, but it’s a liberating concept. This takes away the guilt and shame of accumulating debt from being successful. Success creates challenges and opportunities. Clean up the messes caused by your growth to continually leave margin in your life to pursue joy.

“The phrase that comes to my mind is, ‘It’s a great problem to have, but it’s still a problem,’” laughs Jen. You will always have to solve problems, and the better you get at solving them, the more opportunities you have for joy. The more clarity and laser-focused problem solving you have, the more joy you can experience.

I firmly believe that finding ways to infuse joy into your life is one of the most impactful choices you can make. This could be as simple as giving yourself permission to start that backyard garden or take better care of your body or finally pull the cover off your classic car. You’ve been waiting for the perfect moment, right? It turns out that now is the perfect time.

With just a few quick wins, you gain momentum and remember that joy is intoxicating. This refines your skills at finding even more joy, day after day, year after year.

Jen offers her famous final words, which we should all heed: “Life is full of relationships and the most important relationship is with yourself. If you improve that, you will find more joy.”

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Disclaimer: Content found on the Brentwood MD site is created and/or reviewed by a qualified concierge physcian. We take a lot of care to provide detailed and accurate info for our readers. The blog is only for informational purposes and isn't intended to substitute medical advice from your physician. Only your own physician is familiar with your unique situation and medical history. Please always check with your doctor for all matters about your health before you take any course of action that will affect it.