Why do we spend so much time waiting for joy to find us? Many of us are conditioned to believe that joy is simply a lack of suffering, and time heals all wounds, right? But when you really dig in, you will usually find that joy exists in a much more fluid and fleeting way, meant to be pursued and pulled toward you again and again. To cultivate meaningful, ongoing access points to joy, it’s important to first understand the difference between micro and macro drivers of joy. Then, you can use that knowledge to shift your baseline capacity.
In general, humanity has many macro drivers in common — most of us crave those things in the same way we crave food, water, and shelter. Macro drivers of joy include big picture things like connection, altruism, expression, empathy, outlook, self-awareness, and self-discovery. A big part of joy is aligning these macro values with our reality. Micro drivers are more specific, including things like hobbies, relationships, music, books, food, drinks, scents, etc. In fact, they often relate to our five senses and how things feel in the body. The more you understand your micro drivers , the more readily you find joy through the ups and downs of life.
Reflect on your micro drivers for joy. Write down a list, and don’t be afraid to get super specific. Your list might include quotes, nostalgic pictures and knick-knacks, a playlist, a particular brand of coffee, a cozy sweater, incense, etc. You might even create an “attitude first-aid kit,” as coined by former Olympic skier Bonnie St. John. Store the things that bring you joy in a physical container — anything that helps uplift you or reminds you of a moment of joy from the past or one you envision for the future. Of course, you can’t necessarily store a carton of rocky road ice cream in a shoe box in your office, but at least write down a reminder to indulge. Use all your sensory tools as a reset to experience joy.
Remember, too, indulgence is important, but there will be times when a nourishing meal and a brisk walk will bring more joy than a sweet treat and a nap. You need both. Learn to recognize your inner knowing — if you can silence the mind, you can gain the space and perspective to tap into your intuition.
Push deeper into the “why” of your micro drivers for joy. Why does a toasted tomato sandwich make you happy? Why does the smell of basil bring your joy? Why do certain songs literally calm your nervous system? What is it about the trail behind your house that you love so much? When you pursue those drivers, do a body scan and try having a conversation with yourself — What does this feel like? Try to describe the physical sensations. This will help you recognize new sparks of joy in your life and work to actively cultivate more.
Based on his research, Martin Seligman, the “father of positive psychology” said that people have different natural baselines for happiness. Think of this as a state we return to after the impacts of external events fade. That goes for good and bad events! For example, you may win the lottery or lose your wedding ring — either way, you will ultimately settle back into your baseline.
Shifting that baseline is slow, important work. It takes commitment, but according to Seligman, it’s possible. You can gradually increase your capacity for enduring joy by pursuing your micro and macro joy drivers on a regular basis. At any given time, your cup may be filled or empty. Pour back into yourself on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour basis.