As children, most of us had no problem knowing exactly what brought us joy, and we had no hesitation pursuing those things that we found joyful—often to the chagrin of our parents who were faced with cleaning up the resulting messes we created.
As adults, we seldom have the freedom to engage with abandon in things that bring us joy due to our responsibilities, but even when we have the opportunity to do so, too many of us don't even know what would bring us joy anymore!
I see this all the time in coaching clients. They aren't happy with their life as it currently is, but they also have no idea what they truly want.
It's impossible to successfully improve the life you are living when you don't actually know what you want from life or what truly brings you joy.
When I ask these clients about what they want in life, they often struggle to name options, but it's clear that the options they do name are ones that have already been pre-screened (usually subconsciously) for acceptability, practicality, the expectations of others, or what they think is possible.
It's no wonder they don't find any of the options they name very exciting because the juiciest stuff on the menu has been deleted before they even start!
Of course, we all know that part of being an adult is taking responsibility for our own lives and for those who depend on us, and that means that we all sometimes have to do things that we don't necessarily enjoy.
But a clear understanding of what we want from life and what brings us joy still matters a great deal in creating a good life. It matters even more for those of us who have had our lives broken open by tragedy, pain, trauma, or heartache for two very important reasons.
Recovering from grief
One of the commonalities that everyone who has had their life broken open is the experience of grief.
All brokenness comes with loss. It may be loss of a relationship, a job, your health, your possessions, your sense of safety, your reputation, a loved one, your community, or even your self-identity. (Often a combination of these kinds of losses.)
No matter what form of loss you have undergone, loss causes grief. And grief is taxing on our emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual selves.
It is easy in the midst of grieving to lose sight of what makes life worth living.
When you know what brings you joy, it is easier to create space for those things in your life—even in the midst of your grief—to remind you of the good things in life.
This might mean carving out some time to spend in nature, indulging your creativity, immersing yourself in music, or spending a little extra time on your favorite hobby. It doesn't really matter what it is as long as it is a life-giving, joyful activity for you.
These little glimpses of joy don't miraculously make the grief evaporate, but they can motivate us to keep moving intentionally through the grieving process by reminding us of what waits for us on the other side of grief.
Small tastes of joy along the way can offer powerful sustenance and encouragement to a weary, grieving heart. And it's so much easier to make those small sips happen when you know where joy comes from for you.
Recreating your life
The other commonality in the midst of a life broken open is opportunity (and often necessity) of change in response to what has been lost.
When you are faced with making a change in response to loss (especially when you may already be grieving and in pain), it's tempting to choose what comes next in reaction to what has gone before.
Most often, that means that we pick options that look as much like the ones we just lost as possible. That reduces the amount of change and is therefore more comfortable.
This may mean trying to replace a lost job with one as similar to it as possible—even if the old job bored you to death and made you miserable. Or it may mean searching for a new significant other after a breakup that is much like your lost lover whether you were happy in the old relationship or not.
When we don't know what we truly want, we go with what we know.
But if we must experience these times of loss and brokenness and change, we might as well use them to make choices that move us closer to a life we truly want to live. Knowing what we want most allows us to use these times of brokenness as springboards to make significant positive changes in our life's direction.
If our lives are going to be turned upside down anyway, why not make the resulting changes as beneficial as possible? Knowing what is most joyful, life-giving, and meaningful for you makes it easier to find the options that will do just that.
What brings you joy?
Do you know what brings joy and meaning to your life? Do you know what you truly want from life?
If these questions leave you a bit stymied, try the following exercise. It's one that I've found to be extremely helpful in answering these questions for myself.
- Remember a time when you did feel great joy and meaning. It doesn't have to be anything big and profound (in fact, it's often better if it's not), but just a time or an activity that once made your heart overflow with quiet joy.
- Pay attention to the qualities of the activity you were engaged in. What was it about that activity that brought you joy? (For example, if you remembered joyfully jumping in mud puddles, what about that was so fun? Was it being in/near water? Was it seeing the direct impact of your actions as you splashed? Was it getting messy with abandon?)
- Once you've identified the qualities of the activity you are remembering, see if you can remember other activities that have similar qualities that brought similar experiences of joy. This can help you refine your definition of the qualities and expand your understanding of the types of activities that might include those qualities. (For example, if being in/near water was the quality that struck you above, what other activities have you enjoyed that involved being around water?)
- Brainstorm activities and options that include those qualities that you could engage in going forward. How does it feel to think of participating in activities that include that quality?
- Repeat as many times as needed to expand your list of things that bring you joy.
Here's one example from my own life. I remember a time at a former job when I needed to create a project plan for a complex project that modeled the resource usage and interdependence of tasks in a way that would allow both project leaders and resource managers to most effectively manage people's time across projects and progress of the project toward its goals.
I had been collecting data for weeks, and the day I sat down to figure out how to use the scheduling tool we had in a way that would accomplish all of this, I become so immersed in my work that lost all track of time. I worked for five or six hours straight in complete oblivion to everything around me—even missing lunch entirely!
In thinking about that experience (and others like it over the years), I've realized that I love developing tools and models that take raw data and organize it in a way that will provide clear, useful information about past performance and likely future scenarios for people to make good decisions. This combination of creativity and analytical thinking is enormously rewarding and just plain fun!
Knowing this about myself makes it easier to choose job options, to choose which tasks of my business I do myself and which to outsource, and helps me look for opportunities to engage in tasks like that to help others.
What does this exercise tell you about what brings you joy and meaning? I'd love to hear any discoveries you make! Feel free to comment below or on social media or send me an email to share.