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Cheryl Richardson: Finding Joy

Before
Diane's life was in turmoil. A stay-at-home mom for more than 22 years, she was about to become an empty nester, with one child already in college and the other a high school senior. Her husband, a commercial pilot, had been transferred to an overseas assignment and was now traveling three weeks out of every month. And her daughter, Jordan, the high school student, had begun breaking curfews, experimenting with alcohol and drugs, and, as Diane put it, "traveling in a much faster lane than I ever did at that age."

So it wasn't surprising that Diane wanted some coaching. But this was a surprise: Diane wasn't looking for family-counseling strategies or emotional support. She was looking for a little fun, she said; she needed more joy in her life. "When I think about having fun I feel stuck," Diane told me. "I've spent so many years taking care of my family, I don't know what fun is anymore."

She had good instincts. Having fun gives us a chance to discover fresh ways of looking at the world. Diane's challenge, then, was to find more joy. Could she do it? Using a three-phase plan we set out to see.

The process: Finding fun
First, we wanted to know what fun actually meant to Diane; what did she truly enjoy? She kept referring to childhood experiences -- dancing and laughing with girlfriends, going to the drive-in, playing at the beach. These images flowed easily. "But I have no reference point for what it means to have fun as an adult," she pointed out. We often forget that our childhood usually holds clues to the activities that can bring us joy later on in life. So the next step was to have Diane make a list of at least five fun activities she enjoyed as a kid and, next to it, another list of things she did as an adult that brought her joy. I hoped the former would serve as inspiration for the latter. Her lists:

Child
+ Hanging at the beach
+ Playing games
+ Athletic activities
+ Doing art projects
+ Talking with girlfriends

Adult
+ Going to the beach
+ Playing Scrabble with friends
+ Getting manicures and pedicures
+ Scrapbooking
+ Traveling

She realized something a lot of adults do when they try this exercise: We sometimes miss the fun right under our nose, whether it's long walks with a playful pet, watching reruns of a favorite sitcom with a sweetie, or, in Diane's case, getting her nails done. "I feel pampered when I get a pedicure, and I just enjoy relaxing and chatting with the other women at the salon." Sounds like fun, but Diane had never called it that because it was just part of her routine. Whatever they might be, the key is to recognize the things that give you joy, and make sure you do them. This often takes only one simple step: making space in the calendar, both for those activities we daydream about doing "someday" -- scuba diving off the coast of Costa Rica, taking dance lessons, spending a long weekend at the beach with friends -- and those everyday activities that you've recognized bring you joy. It's a matter of making fun a priority.

Diane, for example, decided to combine her love of scrapbooking with travel; she booked herself on a Caribbean cruise that catered specifically to people who love to scrapbook. She also started giving more attention and time to the simple things that she loved, like going to the movies and getting her nails done.

After: When fun leads to fate
Diane's follow-up report was positive. She was not only finding fun, she was allowing herself to enjoy many of the things she'd been doing already and was generally more relaxed. But one fun moment, she said, had led to something deeper. While enjoying the sociability of the nail salon, Diane was given
a gift that offered a new perspective on the challenges in her life. She overheard another salon customer talking about problems with her daughter, and later, seated next to her at the hand dryer, Diane asked the woman how old the daughter was.

"Jordan is 20," the woman responded, "and going through some real growing pains."

"Of course I replied that I had a daughter named Jordan, too," Diane told me as she related the story, "and that we were also having trouble."

Diane said the woman paused a moment before replying, "Please remember that there's always a chance to repair your relationship as long as you still have your daughter with you." The woman had lost her other daughter, Hope, in a car accident, she told Diane. Hope had only been 14. "It's funny," the woman said. "When you set your keys down, I saw that you had the same key chain that Hope once gave me." Diane's key chain had been a gift from her daughter, too.

"I couldn't believe it," Diane said. "One minute I'm having fun getting my nails done, and the next, I'm feeling deeply grateful to have Jordan in my life, challenges and all." The encounter made her think about the situation from a more compassionate perspective; she realized that the joy that was missing from her life was also missing from her relationship with Jordan: "I keep trying to control her, when maybe what she needs most of all is for me to lighten up and deal with the situation in a whole new way." It served to show us both that making fun a priority puts us in situations where new doors are available to us, waiting to be opened -- new perspectives, new ideas, new people…new fun. Who knows how life might open up if you let yourself find joy?

Text by Cheryl Richardson; illustration by Greg Clarke

 

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