A Question That Helps in Darker Times
We’re all prone to periods in our lives where joy escapes us. In drastic cases, the absence of joy feels dangerously impossible to overcome. Some people have worked hard to become conscious enough to extinguish feelings of powerlessness on their own terms. But the great majority of us do what we can to take it in stride, wrench ourselves out of bed each morning, and “bite down,” as I heard one athlete put it.
In my life, these joyless periods sometimes have a direct cause — the ‘bounce’ just didn’t go my way, or the world seemed to somehow work against me — but many times, there’s really no catalyst I can name. Sometimes sitting and considering my place in the world is simply enough to trigger negative feelings that get stronger and stronger, until they’re all I can feel. It certainly doesn’t happen on purpose, and if I was presented with a ‘way out,’ I’d jump all over it.
And I’m 100% sure that I’m not alone in this.
It’s been labeled as a ‘negative thought loop’ or ‘depression spiral,’ and there are many methods and techniques designed to break the pattern. Some of which might work for you, so it goes without saying that you should research and test them. In my own research, the one recurring recommendation to help disrupt this behaviour is ‘gratitude.’
While the term ‘gratitude’ conjures images (for me) of muttering ‘namaste’ and hugging strangers, it’s hard to argue that focusing on what we should be grateful for in our lives could be detrimental. But practising it can still be difficult.
It’s been suggested to me multiple times that keeping a ‘gratitude journal’ could help counter these feelings of joylessness. The problem is that I find this easy to do — when I’m in a healthy headspace. When the overwhelm sets in, and the days are overflowing with to-do’s, with seemingly no reprieve, and just getting out of bed feels pointless…that 5–10 minutes of journalling falls so far down the list of priorities that it’s forgotten. Usually for months.
If you have a rigid daily schedule, and/or intense discipline, then journaling might be a great help. But as a freelancer, with a one-year-old who hasn’t yet developed a talent for sleeping…every day looks a little different for me.
Instead of waiting until I’m in the down-cycle to try and force a block of time into my schedule, I’ve found it far more beneficial to try and find moments of gratitude daily and spontaneously. It’s also had some beneficial side-effects.
Rather than trying to focus on joy when experiencing its absence, I try my best to appreciate things while I’m right in the middle of them. And I dial that process in by asking a recurring question: What would happen if this was taken away?
It bugs me when people simplify complex problems with a miracle ‘hack.’ That’s not what I’m talking about. There’s no simple fix for the toxic blend of anxiety, sadness, grief, isolation, and all the other sensations that put happiness beyond our reach. But rather than surrender to that horrible sensation of being trapped in emotional quicksand, I think we have to try and do whatever we can. For me, it’s keeping that question at the front of my mind.
When my daughter laughs, I think: What would happen if this was taken away? Easy. Devastation. It would be incomprehensible. Well, better appreciate the heck out of it. That’s a pretty obvious case. But, a warm bed? A walk on a calm day? The fact that you have a supercomputer in your pocket, that can connect you with basically anyone and teach you whatever you ask it? What if those were taken away from you? Imagine if you paused to feel gratitude every time you used your phone.
I run, a lot. So much that it’s an almost daily chore. And I’ve been doing it for more than two decades. Whether I actually still ‘enjoy’ it is very much a subject for debate. But, if the ability to do it was taken away from me? Again, devastation. Even the things we don’t necessarily enjoy can be sources of gratitude — if we pause to appreciate them.
Gratitude is the flip side of nihilism. Dwelling on the fact that we’re here for a short time, made up of many moments — most of them completely underwhelming — can provide two diametrically opposed impressions. We can focus on the futility of it, or we can appreciate the brevity of the moments that do give us wonder. Two sides, same coin.
You can train yourself out of one belief, and into the other. That’s not just my opinion. (Look deeper into neuroplasticity.)
Earlier I promised you a beneficial side-effect. I was angrily driving my car in traffic last week (I take traffic personally — something else to work on) and was thinking, ‘I’m driving a car. A hunk of machinery that gets me anywhere I want to go, whenever I want to, faster and safer than ever before in history.’ And then, seeking that moment of gratitude, asked myself: What would happen if this car was taken away from me?’
My answer: ‘That’d be great! I hate this car! I only bought it because the car I really loved was run into by a drunk-driver. If it disappeared tomorrow…I’d have to find a new car. One that I actually liked.’ Would that be an inconvenience? Absolutely. Could I afford it? No. Would I work to make something happen that would result in me owning a different car? Yes. Because I’d have to. And it would make me feel better about the act of driving — something I do every day.
Realizing I wasn’t grateful for something prompted me to move on from it. My lame car gave me a goal. Get rid of it.
But the real purpose is more important: elevating your mood on a daily basis — and keeping it elevated when the darker times descend.
No easy outs. No snake oil. Just a small question to integrate into your daily existence, to try and seek out and hold onto the moments of small elation that we ignore each day. They might be the things that help us when we can’t see the way forward.