Friday, 24 December 2010

Ode to Joy

Today I’m thinking about joy.  Not just getting by or feeling OK. Not even just contentment or wellbeing. Joy.  The thoughts and feelings we have at those moments when life is excellent, when everything is fine and exactly as we would wish it to be.  

My thoughts of joy are sparked in part by Christmas; but even more by the birth of Frank, my latest grandchild; and by the recovery of my brother Steve from a major operation.

We doctors concentrate too much on curing sadness. We pay too little attention to the positive side of life. Helping people out of the depths of their misery is good, but not good enough. We leave people stranded half way. We try to help people reduce their pangs of grief and move out of range of their personal whirlwinds, without offering anywhere better to go.  Rarely do we encourage our patients to travel any further, to look around and discover places where they can smile and laugh, where life can be rewarding and inspirational.
Without the idea of joy, or a direction of travel towards positive emotions, we are operating with one hand tied behind our backs when we try to encourage patients to make better decisions, solve their problems and rearrange their social behaviours.

Barbara Fredrickson, a psychologist based in North Carolina, explains how we can use joy and other positive emotions to broaden and build our well-being and personal resilience. Joy sparks the urge to play. Interest sparks the urge to explore. Contentment sparks the urge to savour and integrate. And love sparks a recurring cycle of each of these urges within safe, close relationships. Broadening our minds in these ways, through play, exploring, savouring or integrating, promotes discovery of new and creative actions, ideas and social networks. These in turn build up our personal resources and provide lasting reserves which we can draw on if life gets difficult again.

We don’t just have to wait for joy to come along and surprise us. We can go looking for it.

Music is one big route into joy. For me Beethoven does joy in music better than anyone else I know. One of the very best moments of my life was being in a choir singing the Ode to Joy in his Choral Symphony.  Here is a link to another version (technically much better than ours!)

For sheer ebullient, effervescent joy, bubbling over with brilliance, I can think of nothing better.  This one is to celebrate the birth of my grandson Frank.

If I’m looking for quiet reflective joy, Ludwig van B helps me out again.  I love his Heileger Dankgesang, the third movement of his string quartet opus 132. He composed this after recovering from a very serious illness, when he wasn’t at all sure that he would make it. So this one is for my brother Steve.  

Have a look at  You need to scroll down to find the music itself. This link also gives a delightful talk about illness and creativity.

Or if it’s bringing out the joy to be found in ordinary everyday living, for me there’s nothing to beat Van Morrison’s Coney Island . Here’s a link: Van M is famously grumpy, but sometimes, just sometimes, he gets it absolutely right.

What about you?  What brings you joy?  Does it catch you by surprise, or can you go and find it? How do you celebrate it?

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Try a little tenderness

A lot of what I’ve written so far has been about balance – the balance between being with others and being alone; the balance between sorting out your own problems and reaching out for help.  Here’s another balance than works for me – the balance between looking after myself and looking after other people.
 It is entirely reasonable to wish to have a pleasant life, to seek to be happy and contented as much as possible. We all need to chill out, pamper ourselves, enjoy protected ‘me’ time. But it is also good for us to engage in purposeful activity, to devote time and effort to people or things other than ourselves.
I write ‘good for us to engage in purposeful activity’ deliberately. I don’t just mean that it is morally good, or the right thing to do.  I also mean that it is probably good for our health.

There is evidence that a combination of looking after self and looking after others helps us to stay healthy.  Carol Ryff is a very thoughtful psychologist from Wisconsin in the United States. She  is working on some elegant studies with older people to check out the relationship between different sorts of well-being and future health. She’s shown that increasing your personal well-being can improve your blood sugar levels, and that people who look after others are less likely to develop of diabetes.  Also that greater psychological well-being - including positive relations with others, environmental mastery, personal growth, purpose in life and self-acceptance – helps you sleep.

If you look back at the well-being recipes that we produced on this blog a few weeks ago, you’ll see that they all contain a combination of looking after self and looking after others. So, perhaps instinctively, we are aware of this need for balance between self and other.   

 What sorts of purposeful activity are good for us? 

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argues that we should be involved in moral communities, using our skills to enrich our own lives and the lives of those around us. Martin Seligman (another US psychologist) distinguishes between the good life, which involves us in gratifying engagement outside ourselves, whether in work, love or play; and the meaningful life, in which we place ourselves in the service of something larger than ourselves. 
I’m not sure that it matters too much what we do, as long as we do something.  I’m a believer in starting simple, and close to home.

And we don’t always have to rely on the wisdom of philosophers and psychologists. As the incomparable Otis Redding puts it, we could just try a little tenderness:

Oh she may be weary
Young girls they do get weary
Wearing that same old  shabby dress
But when she gets weary
Try a little tenderness

I know she’s waiting
Just anticipating
Things that she’ll never, never, never possess
But while she’s there waiting
Try a little tenderness
This is strong on the page, but so much stronger on the stage. To get the full effect, go and click on