Finding joy has never been a priority for me in terms of how I structure my life. A long-term goal? Certainly, yes. My path to getting there, however, has been misguided. I’ve held the common belief that if I can achieve and succeed enough, joy–or at the very least, contentment–will find its way to me.
Sometimes I wonder if I was drawn initially to the field of faith-based advocacy because the nature of the work is to resist complacency. The successes are few and far between, and they are never sufficient for achieving the ultimate goal of justice for all. My proclivity to be dissatisfied with progress and to keep on pushing aligns well with the vision of many social justice movements.
My permanent state of dissatisfaction, which was for some time a motivational force, seeped into how I felt about nearly everything. Whenever feelings of joy or happiness would arise, particularly around work, I often attributed them to a false sense of pride that had caused me to lose focus on the long game. In short, I didn’t believe I deserved to feel joy.
Recently on one of my afternoon walks through the woods with my dog, I was listening to Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations podcast. The episode featured a conversation with Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage and presenter of a popular TED Talk about happiness at work. Speaking about the mindset of success, Achor said, “Every time your brain has a success, you just change the goalpost of what success looks like.”
The week prior I had been discussing this very phenomenon with another social entrepreneur. I confessed to her, “For the first time in two years since starting my own business, I know that I have guaranteed money coming in every month. But I can’t seem to celebrate it because it doesn’t seem like enough.” As soon as I achieved the goal of monthly income, I did exactly as Achor described–I changed the measure of success. I was no longer satisfied with what I had achieved because I was focused on a new, more ambitious goal. A certain amount of ambition is well and good, and definitely necessary for success in business, but mine had gotten way out of whack.
What could I do to flip the internal script? Achor had some practical advice on how anyone could work to shift their thought patterns around joy and happiness: practice gratitude, meditate, exercise, and connect with others. None of these was a new idea, but Achor’s suggestions helped me turn these practices into something I could do on a daily basis.
For a few years I’ve been playing around with my morning routine. I’ve tried yoga upon waking, reading for 30 minutes, journaling about the previous day, etc. Nothing ever stuck. After a few weeks of trying a new morning ritual, I’d slip back into checking email first thing or finding some other way to be productive. Rather than giving me a sense that I was on top of my to-do list, this early morning work only made me feel overwhelmed.
The morning after listening to Achor’s conversation with Oprah, I started a new 15-minute ritual while my coffee was brewing. The practice includes journaling about three things for which I’m grateful, briefly describing a meaningful experience from the previous day, and meditating for 5-10 minutes. By the time I’m done, my coffee is ready, and I feel more grounded and positive about the day ahead.
I’ve maintained this morning ritual for just over a month, with a few days of incomplete rituals sprinkled throughout, and while I can’t say there’s been a dramatic shift in my way of viewing the world, I do find a sense of ease emerging. I find myself scanning my surroundings and circumstances for what is good or beautiful at this moment rather than what needs to change. So far these tiny shifts have been enough to coax me out of bed in the early morning hours.
I chose to share this practice publicly in the hopes that it might be useful for others who struggle with joy and gratitude, and that it might create some accountability for me as I move through the coming weeks and months. I know that old habits, whether they’re actions or ways of thinking, are hard to break, but I do believe that we all have the capacity to creative positive change, beginning in our own lives. Will you join me?
Katey Zeh, M.Div is a soon-to-be-ordained Baptist minister, strategist, writer, and speaker who inspires communities to create a more just, compassionate world. She has written for outlets including Huffington Post, Sojourners, Religion Dispatches, Response magazine, the Good Mother Project, and the Journal for Feminist Studies in Religion. She is the co-host of Kindreds, a podcast for soul sisters. Her book Women Rise Up will be published by the FAR Press this year. Find her on Twitter at @kateyzeh or on her website kateyzeh.com.