Joy is the Holy Grail of feelings. We all strive to be joyful, yearn to find joy in our lives.
But, if you are honest, when did you last feel really joyful? When did you last "jump for joy"? When was the last time your heart was bursting with love, happiness and the sheer joy of being alive?
For most of us it's so long ago, we can't even remember. Maybe in early childhood, when life was less complicated and serious. Before our struggles and responsibilities beat all the joy out of us. Before too much suffering, rejection, abuse, neglect sucked it from our injured hearts.
And yet, we never stop searching for it. We sense that it should be a natural part of our Being. Its complete absence from our life bothers us, causes us pain, distress and anxiety.
What are we doing wrong?!
We listen to celebrities and gurus tell us about what joy feels like. Describe how they rediscovered it and how "you can do it too". Every day our minds are flooded with TV commercials implying that we can find joy if we buy a trendy perfume, a fast car or certain brand of dish soap.
And we try. We buy. But still, joy eludes us. A new exercise regime, meditation practice or purchase may give us pleasure for a while, but it never lasts.
And we start to think: "Maybe I'm not good enough? Maybe I just don't deserve joy in my life? Maybe joy is only for people who are better than me, more spiritually inclined. Who cope better with the trials and tribulations of life?"
But it has nothing to do with your deservedness, your societal status, scent or level of enlightenment (or lack thereof).
In fact, there are only 3 simple (yet tragic) reasons why joy is absent from your life.
When your life just doesn't feel right. When happiness, contentment and fulfilment seem far away.
Yet, you don't quite know why.
Generally, your life isn't all bad. And you feel that you should be happier. That you should be grateful for what you have and make the best of it. But too many struggles, anxieties and worries darken your days. Too much negativity circles in your mind. You feel unbalanced, out of control. Stuck.
You have trouble believing in yourself and your own abilities. Somehow, other people always seem ahead of you. More important. Their achievements superior to yours.
We tend to believe that we are born to be socially awkward, a procrastinator, people-pleaser, push-over or under-achiever. We think we are doomed to live with fear and anxiety because of our inherent nervous disposition.
We are convinced that we are condemned to a life of mediocrity, inferiority and "just getting by". That's just what it is. Not everybody can achieve greatness, stand out, matter. Not all of us are destined for happiness, purpose and abundance.
Not all of us are good enough. Bad luck, right?
But has it ever occurred to you that all of your struggles might just be signs of low self-worth?
I had a sadistic teacher in high school who mocked and ridiculed every pupil who dared to attract attention. I was petrified of needing the toilet during his lessons because I knew he would verbally abuse me for asking permission.
So, I worried about German lessons all day in advance. And my body reacted to my anxiety with an overwhelming urge to pee as soon as the lesson started.
I suffered through those 50 minutes, digging my finger nails into the palm of my hand, so the pain would distract me from my screaming bladder. But too often, I was forced to raise my hand and face his derision because I couldn’t hold on any longer.
It made me feel pathetic. Like my body betrayed me. Worked against me.
I started to mistrust myself and my ability to control my actions (and bladder). As a consequence, I developed toilet anxiety, which haunted me during my teens and all the way through my twenties. Whenever I had no immediate toilet access (for example when travelling in the car, in the cinema or on hikes), I needed to go every 15 minutes.
And it wasn’t just in my mind. I really desperately, urgently had to pee! Every time.
Ashamed of my irrepressible bodily reactions, I tried to hide my anxiety from everybody else. When I was out with other people, it took all my strength to keep it together. To stop my anxiety from swallowing me whole and my body from humiliating me. All while maintaining a composed exterior.
So nobody would know how weak I was. How inadequate. How much of a failure.
But my mind was consumed by worries about the nearest facility access, absorbed by suppressing the feelings of panic, overwhelmed by the almost impossible task to act “normal”. And every outing was torture.
So, I avoided activities that involved other people whenever I could. Locked myself into my small flat where it was safe. Where I wasn’t at risk of humiliating myself and my bladder behaved.
For many years, I missed out on life. I merely existed. Imprisoned by my anxiety. Suffering in silence and isolation.
Until one liberating (but terrifying) step changed it all.
Yesterday I had an astonishing realisation while I watched my cats sleeping on the sofa.
They were snoozing away peacefully. Blissfully content to spend the majority of their days chilling, relaxing and dozing without a care in the world.
And it occurred to me that our perspectives of life are entirely different. While cats nap all day (only interrupted by eating, casual strolls around the garden, stalking the occasional bird and, from time to time, defending their estate against foreign intruders), us humans are constantly on the go.
We rush around, stressed, anxious and breathless. Hustling, slaving, burning ourselves out. Sacrificing our emotional, mental and physical health so we can achieve, accomplish and contribute to society. So we have purpose and our life means something.
We believe that purpose is a prerequisite for happiness. But observing my cats in their slumber, I realised that they were perfectly happy. Without the need to find purpose in their lives.
I passed my driving test at first attempt when I was 18 years old. And didn't sit on a driver's seat again for the next 10 years.
The thought of driving a car made me feel sick with worry and anxiety. I was overwhelmed by all the actions that needed to be completed simultaneously. Clutch, accelerator, indicator, look left, right and back, use the side mirrors, watch pedestrians, traffic and stick to speed limits. It was just too much!
So, I avoided it. Convinced myself that a car in the city was impractical anyway. That the 3-hour journey to see my family on the train at weekends was more comfortable anyway. And that I enjoyed taking the bus.
But I always knew. Driving was my biggest failure.
Every time I found myself behind the steering wheel, I felt physically sick and froze, mind blank and petrified. Driving was my nemesis. An unsurmountable wall of shame I could never overcome.
All my life, my self-doubt murdered my plans, strangled my enthusiasm and drowned my passions.
When I was 7 years old, my deepest desire was to become an author. But self-doubt convinced me that my sister was the creative genius in the family. I could never compare to her, why waste my life on silly phantasies and unrealistic ideas.
When I chose a sensible career in research instead, self-doubt insisted that I was an imposter in a ridiculous scientist disguise. I lived in constant fear of being exposed. Of somebody pointing a finger at me, shouting: “You know nothing, little girl”.
And now, as I dreamed of rekindling my love for writing, self-doubt vetoed again. And I believed its warnings, bought its objections. Again.
As always, I stuck with my familiar life, my stale routines devoid of challenges, excitement and adventures. Busy suppressing my passion and disregarding my need for creative expression, purpose and direction.
While my dreams simmered on the back burner, neglected, oppressed, out of reach. I thought I didn’t need them to be happy. But I was wrong.
Every aspect of my life was a struggle. I felt like I was serving a life sentence in a homemade prison.
Paralysed, stuck. And alone.
I couldn't advance in my career because crippling self-doubt convinced me that I was a fraud in a ridiculous scientist disguise. I felt lucky I had a job at all! Considering my incompetence.
I was unable to go out with friends because I felt weak, anxious and vulnerable and was terrified of being mugged or killed on the way home alone.
I avoided meeting new people because the thought of social interactions made me feel sick. I believed that everybody I met would automatically judge me.
And I had given up on love and the prospect of a new relationship because I felt too flawed and damaged to deserve it. The only conceivable outcome was abandonment and the resulting unbearable pain. No, thank you!
So I sat at home. Day in, day out.
Wallowed in self-pity. Blamed myself, the Universe, other people for my misery. Drowned in negativity and self-loathing. Resented the people who had it all figured out, who were happy, confident and loved. And spent whole days in bed, in despair and hopelessness.
I would still be there now. Full of emptiness, hurt and envy.
But I was lucky. Because somehow I discovered the answers to the 3 most essential questions we will ask ourselves when we embark on the journey to a free, light-hearted and happier life.
Several years ago, I was working as part of a multidisciplinary team updating a national guideline for breast cancer detection and management.
I finished a presentation of the research plan to 20 leading oncologists and cancer geneticists, as one of them stood up, shook his head in disapproval and said: "This is all wrong! We are dealing with an important issue here. People's lives are at stake. We can't have your inexperience screw this up. What are you? A student? This is not up to scratch."
And before he sat down, he added: "And, by the way, your accent doesn't only sound horribly German, it is also terribly Welsh."
As you can imagine I was stunned. Hurt. And angry. We had worked hard on the research plan and it was good.
A sharp, burning feeling spread through my throat as I suppressed tears. I wanted to defend myself and my work. Tell him what an ignorant, arrogant idiot he was. And kick him where it hurt most.
But instead, I mumbled: "Ok, we will revisit it until the next meeting". And excused myself to cry in the toilet where nobody would see it.
At the time, his criticism crushed me. Made me doubt my abilities. For days I replayed the events in my mind. Overanalysed what had gone wrong, what I could have done better to avoid the inquisition. And beat myself up for stupid mistakes I made and for not standing up for myself.
If the same happened to me again now, I would react differently.
It wouldn't offend and hurt me, or knock my confidence. Because I know 3 important truths about criticism today that could have spared me a lot of suffering, upset and heartache.