How you feel when you wake in the morning? Do you check in with your body to see if it is a ‘jump-out-of–bed-to greet-the-dawn’ kinda day? Or if it is a two coffees before 9am day? Usually I instinctively know, as I open my eyes, and I check in with my body, what the availability of energy is in my system. Waking up and knowing that today holds some pitstops of joy is a sure-fire way of increasing my personal energy levels, and, although I may not jump out of bed like a kid on Christmas morning, I will start the day with more enthusiasm and a better attitude.
But what does joy have to do with my wellness levels? Come to think of it, what is wellness really? Are Wellness and Vitality the same thing? Or are they siblings, with Health, the ever watchful parent? Can a degree of wellness be achieved, even if there are underlying health concerns? Is wellness a combination of an aligned mind, body and spirit? An Isosceles Triangle of perfect balance? And where does JOY come into the equation?
Full disclosure – I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2019, and have been on a long journey towards remission and recovery, with many wellness detours along the way. When you hear the words: “I’m sorry but the lump is cancer”, trust me, you are suddenly very motivated to start the healing process. In the past two years I have explored a range of wellness/healing modalities. These include (and the list is still growing) a sweat lodge, a yoga retreat, a soul sounding, art therapy, hiking, psychotherapy, micro dosing, couples therapy, many weekends away after buying a beat-up camper van (named Gus the Bus), massages, energy healings in which bones were thrown, free-diving and dawn cold water swims. And I can now officially state, that not one of these experiences led to a lasting feeling of wellness and vibrancy. Yes, each was magical and interesting in their own right and the effects lasted for a day or more, but no, not one experience on its own was the silver bullet, instead, for me, that beautiful and elusive sense of wellness has emerged from regular and frequent inoculations of joy. Finding space in my daily routine for pockets of joy during the week and longer joy immersions on the weekends, has given me that joy-glow.
Of all the wellness modalities I have tried, free diving (thank you My Octopus Teacher) and cold water swimming are tops for me. As a friend once said: you never regret a swim. Being underwater, concentrating on my breath and feeling the embrace of the cold ocean, keeps me present in this moment, and I can’t worry about my life (and even my death). But there are many other bursts of daily joy that I now feel entitled to embrace. After all, if you don’t feel entitled to joy when you have a dread disease, then when will you? For many years I have practised pottery as a hobby. I have loved it, but never given it my full attention. Nowadays, my pottery is more ceramic sculpture, my pieces are larger and more vibrant, and I invest daily time and energy and reap huge JOY credits from it.
But why is Joy important for wellness? When we feel joy, our brains release two potent chemicals – serotonin and dopamine – both of which are strong feel-good neurotransmitters. As our brain and body is flooded with these chemicals, several effects occur. We may breathe more deeply, and our hearts might beat a little faster. Our pupils may dilate and our skin glows as our circulatory system kicks up a notch. Research by Dr Bruce Lipton https://www.brucelipton.com has identified that when we are in the well-known ‘fight or flight’ or stress mode our cells are unable to absorb circulating nutrients, and when we are in ‘rest and recovery’ the opposite is true: our cells are nourished and replenished. This latter mode is heavily influenced by serotonin and dopamine – the joy chemicals.
The conclusion is simple – the more joy we feel, the more physical and emotional wellness we will experience.
So how do you find your joy? It is as simple as noting whether your energy levels rise or fall when you contemplate doing something. For one person, stripping a car engine will fill them with energy and excitement, for another it is baking a perfect cake. For some being with friends is just the ticket, but for others being with a good book is a much more joyful thought. There is no one right recipe to finding your joy, you just have to pay attention to what makes you happy. And this can change on a daily basis, so staying in touch with your needs and feelings is key.
Joy doesn’t need to come from time-consuming and perhaps expensive hobbies, it can also come from savouring the perfect cup of coffee, from sitting in the sun with your face turned towards the warmth, from a house plant that has pushed out a new lime-green leaf, from a call with a friend.
Before cancer, I was a bit confused about my values: For me taking time out to do the things that I loved induced guilt –shouldn’t I be working or at least doing something constructive instead? Having cancer changed all that. I now realise that I won’t live forever, so best that I suck as much joy out of this earthly experience as I can.
But why wait until you are ill to feel truly well? Embracing your joy will benefit everyone around you. You will be a better mother or father, a nicer friend, a more focused colleague all because your joy-tank is full and life suddenly feels amazing. So today, notice which activities being you a sense of joy and happiness, and plan to do more of them. It really is that simple. I promise.