The Secret Ingredient To Working Less — And Living More

Photo: VISUALSPECTRUM

In the height of my workaholic years, I was driven by the fear that if I didn’t work 16 hours a day and travel nonstop, I would lose my job and become a failure. I thought I would have to go crawling back to my parents’ basement, broke and lonely, and I would have to start all over again. No matter what, I knew I couldn't let that happen.

Guess what? That lifestyle sent me to the hospital several times for stress-related injuries, chronic pain, and even a collapsed left lung. But more than a decade later, my healer has been a single word: joy. Here are three joy-related questions that helped me heal my workaholism.

How can I discover joy by subtracting misery?

Rumi says that it is not our task to seek love but to seek and find all the barriers within ourselves that we have built against it. Joy works the same way. The path is reverse-engineered. That which we seek is discovered, rather than created, through a process of elimination.

For example, being a workaholic gave me tendinitis of the wrist. And when I do yoga, my brain gets angry at my body for being unable to perform every posture in the series. It brings to the surface one of my deepest fears, which is that I’m not as healthy as I think I am. But yoga, a source of deep joy for me, helped me accept the reality of my body and free myself from the anxiety of perfection. Even if that means skipping my favorite posture every day for three months. Returning to the mat means returning to joy.

And not only physically, since the practice is so demanding, but also socially. Yoga is where my community is, which makes me forget all about my own little problems and enter into other people’s experiences. Walking into my studio subtracts misery from my life and allows joy to enter.

What is my unique definition of joy?

Joy comes wrapped in a bow of guilt. People embrace joy when it comes. They’re terrified of feeling shameful or indulgent or depraved. After all, those who take uninhibited pleasure from what they’re engaged in at the moment have been historically viewed as sinful and immoral. Who are we to feel such joy when there is so much pain and suffering around us?

But the joke is on us. Because there’s nothing indecent or immoral about leading a joyful life. Quite the opposite. Joy is critical to the health of the human psyche. It’s been scientifically proven to increase our overall health and well-being.

We should treat the inability to experience it as a public health crisis. We must trust that joy is something we deserve in this moment. Meaning, grounding our daily life in whatever version of it is available to us. We might use the mantra, "I deserve joy" as we inhale and exhale. Even if people look at us like we’re nuts. Even if that means being a few minutes late to the party because you were working out, meditating, or journaling, so be it. Look, life is hard. We take our joy where we can get it. And we take pride in the unique way in which we define it.

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How can I water the root of inner joy?

Joy takes realizing what separates us from it. When something triggers our anxiety, the instinctive reaction is to freak out and ruminate about the stress and dwell in our existential pain and mope around feeling sorry for ourselves. Buddha famously called this the second arrow. In life, we cannot always control the first arrow, he said. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. And with this second arrow comes the possibility of choice.

It reminds me of the first few times I experienced panic attacks during work. My awareness of and relationship to joy wasn’t completely developed. And so I felt helpless to take responsibility for what was going on inside my head. There was nothing to override my brain’s natural negativity bias. But as my inner journey evolved, I discovered that joy was a skill. Joy was a choice, not a chance. And because it had a different biological signature than anxiety, that meant I could use it as a tool to cannibalize the panic.

Singing, for example, is an experience guaranteed to provide me with joy. Especially when it comes to '80s pop songs. That’s why I keep a playlist on my phone for such an occasion. Should the waves of anxiety come crashing in, I know exactly which songs to play in order to marshal an effective joy response and allow the weather patterns of panic to come and go. Works every time.

Remember: Let us not hold back from trusting and experiencing joy. We ask these questions, and people might point and whisper and stare, but at least our anxiety won’t get the best of us.

Want more ideas for how to bring more joy into your life? Here are 40 ways to practice it every single day.

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