How to bring more joy into your daily life…

Lessons learned by an Englishman in New York

It would be hard to imagine two more contrasting worlds. Above me, stretching up into the heavy rain clouds, the opulence of the Trump Tower, sleek and black. Behind me, on a busy Fifth Avenue sidewalk, a charity worker soliciting for cash donations from the passing throng.

Lucky enough to have been able to organise a Saturday in Manhattan, following a week’s business trip to Connecticut from the UK, I was intent on soaking up the sights and sounds of one of the world’s great cities.

I walked away from the charity worker, initially mistaking him for a salesman of some kind (there are plenty of people trying to sell to you in New York City!). Then his words began to penetrate my consciousness, and I realised that he was collecting to provide meals for the homeless. This being one of the charitable causes that I tend to support, I turned back and grabbed a small handful of change from my pocket (probably a couple of dollars) and poured it into his collecting jar. We exchanged pleasantries and he told me that there are fifty thousand homeless people in the city and that the cash will help to feed them. Then I was on my way again. I stopped once more, reflected, and went back with another five dollars for him. I was doing quick values calculations, of how badly I needed the money, compared with someone who lives on the street, what I would use the five dollars for, compared with the street person, and so on.

It struck me that fifty thousand was a big number of people to be on the streets. I wondered momentarily how many people were giving donations on the street today and how many donations it would take to feed all fifty thousand. I watched, for one minute, and counted around one hundred people passing the charity worker on the sidewalk. And the vast majority made no donation at all. I made a quick calculation that if each and every person passing gave two dollars to this one charity worker, we’d probably collect enough in a day to feed the lot. By the way, it’s hard to know how many of those passing were Americans; a large proportion of that crowd, on a Saturday, I would guess would be foreign tourists.

Now, all this talk of fancy business trips, New York City, and giving away hard earned cash might give the false impression that I am one of those lucky ones with plenty of cash in the bank and can well afford to spread a little around. So, in case you think this story is only for the well-heeled, I have to confess that my financial liquidity right now is less than great. I earn a decent salary, but like many have maintenance (alimony) payments, mortgage payments, and household bills. I did stop and think before donating, asking myself whether I could afford it.

What I want to share with you is that the amount of joy I feel in my life has increased hugely since I changed the way I think about other people over the last few years. And here’s the mindset change; we human beings are all one big family on this little blue planet.

Stephen Covey (‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’) talks about an abundance mentality, versus a scarcity mentality. In a scarcity mentality, we believe that there is not enough to go around. Resources are limited, we live in a competitive world, anything you get represents a little bit less available for me, a zero-sum game (all your gains are to my detriment). (By the way, for a hilarious exposition on this attitude, get yourself a copy on DVD of the original 1960 movie ‘School for Scoundrels’, in which the brilliant Alastair Sim, playing Dr. Stephen Potter, teaches ‘one-upmanship’ to the hapless Henry Palfrey, in his bid to win the girl from my all time favourite movie cad, Terry-Thomas… “The world was divided into winners and losers… in a word, the ‘one-up’ and the ‘one-down’. “

An abundance mentality takes the view that there is enough for everyone. We can find a way to share the cake so that we all get a slice. If we work together, maybe we can even discover ways to create a bigger cake, so that we all get to have a little more.

Now, just think for a moment, which of these worldviews leads to advancement of the human race? Which approach would more likely succeed in getting a crew of astronauts to the moon and back, safely (remember the movie of ‘Apollo 13’?). Which approach most contributed to New York being the fabulous city it is today, with its vastly improved crime statistics and lively, diverse population? In a scarcity mentality, would immigrants be allowed to enter that great port at all, for fear of draining the resources and wealth of the city’s citizens? Well, you know, that’s how the city was built and thrived, fuelled by the queues of wide-eyed hopefuls landing at Ellis Island, with hearts full of possibility.

And isn’t that really what the American dream is all about; the art of the possible, the hope of a new and better beginning? Scarcity thinking, or abundance thinking?

Now, when it comes to doing the right thing, generally in life I have learned (by my 54th year) to listen to my inner guidance system. This system is a combination of intuition, listening to your heart, gut feeling. I think it’s no coincidence that these phrases relate to the visceral, they are about what our body is telling us, rather than our intellect and our logic.

And, simply, it works like this; go with whatever puts a feeling of joy into your heart, and a spring into your step. This is almost certainly an indication that you have made a good choice and are doing the best thing for all concerned, including yourself!

You do, however, need to distinguish between joy and pleasure. Joy is a natural high without the chemicals a feeling you get when your spirit soars, the world becomes an open and friendly place and the feeling is a lasting, growing experience. Pleasure, on the other hand, can be artificially induced using chemicals, by spending money (‘retail therapy’) or by scoring a victory over others (e.g. by jumping a queue or getting away without paying for something). You momentarily feel ahead of the game, up on the deal, a winner! (Dr Stephen Potter smiles down!). This momentary pleasurable effect may last anywhere between ninety seconds to an hour. And then it’s gone. Not only that, you didn’t contribute to the net joy in the world!

Here are a few tips for how to feel more joyful, for I believe that is one of the prime reasons we are here. Come on now, let’s get creative, and add to the human joy pool!

  1. Donate something to a charity, one that you empathise with. There are thousands to choose from, get excited about being one of the people who made a difference, however modest.
  2. Give some of your time to doing something worthwhile for the benefit of your fellow humans, for no other reason than contributing service makes you feel more joyful! My favourites are Samaritans (telephone support to the emotionally distressed) and Crisis (volunteer services for the homeless). Doing something for kids and neighbourhoods is always worthwhile.
  3. Smile at somebody and exchange friendly greetings when they serve you with your railway ticket or drive your taxi, especially when they got out of the wrong side of the bed and are grumpy.
  4. Appreciate, and show more gratitude in your life. Look around you; this is a stunningly beautiful planet, if you have the eyes to see it. Be thankful for the senses you have been endowed with, that allow you to experience it.
  5. Be wildly curious – find out why things are the way they are, and what you can learn from that. Adopt the attitude of a lifelong learner.
  6. Be creative. We are here to create ourselves, in every moment, in every decision we make, in all our choices, in how we act, communicate, show up in the world. Come out of your shell and show the world what you are truly capable of!

I’d love to hear suggestions from you on what it is that makes you feel more joyful and how we can spread more joy around. Please don’t wait for everyone else to do it first. As Gandhi said: ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’

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