Finding slices of joy

Three weeks ago, I ran across an article called “Google’s former happiness guru developed a three-second brain exercise for finding joy“. Yes, the title is kinda cringe-worthy, but the content is good. Here are the most essential five paragraphs:

Successfully reshaping your mindset, [Chade-Meng Tan] argues, has less to do with hours of therapy and more to do with mental exercises, including one that helps you recognize “thin slices of joy.”

“Right now, I’m a little thirsty, so I will drink a bit of water. And when I do that, I experience a thin slice of joy both in space and time,” he told CBC News. “It’s not like ‘Yay!”” he notes in Joy on Demand. “It’s like, ‘Oh, it’s kind of nice.’”

Usually these events are unremarkable: a bite of food, the sensation of stepping from a hot room to an air-conditioned room, the moment of connection in receiving a text from an old friend. Although they last two or three seconds, the moments add up, and the more you notice joy, the more you will experience joy, Tan argues. “Thin slices of joy occur in life everywhere… and once you start noticing it, something happens, you find it’s always there. Joy becomes something you can count on.” That’s because you’re familiarizing the mind with joy, he explains.

Tan bases this idea on neurological research about how we form habits. Habitual behaviors are controlled by the basal ganglia region of the brain, which also plays a role in the the development of memories and emotions. The better we become at something, the easier it becomes to repeat that behavior without much cognitive effort.

Tan’s “thin slice” exercise contains a trigger, a routine, and a reward—the three parts necessary to build a habit. The trigger, he says, is the pleasant moment, the routine is the noticing of it, and the reward is the feeling of joy itself.

Since then, I have been working on implementing its advice, and making it a habit to notice the various “thin slices of joy” in my life.

It was difficult to remember at first, and on occasions when I’m upset for any reason it’s even harder to follow, even if I do remember it. Still, it is gradually becoming a more entrenched habit, with me remembering it and automatically following it more and more often – and feeling better as a result. I’m getting better at noticing the pleasure in sensations like

  • Drinking water.
  • Eating food.
  • Going to the bathroom.
  • Having drops of water fall on my body while in the shower.
  • The physicality of brushing teeth, and the clean feeling in the mouth that follows.
  • Being in the same room as someone and feeling less alone, even if both are doing their own things.
  • Typing on a keyboard and being skilled enough at it to have each finger just magically find the right key without needing to look.

And so on.

Most of these are physical sensations. I would imagine that this would be a lot harder for someone who doesn’t feel comfortable in their body. But for me, a great thing about this is that my body is always with me. Anytime when I’m sitting comfortably – or standing, or lying, or walking comfortably – I can focus my attention on that comfort and get that little bit of joy.

In the article, it said that

“Thin slices of joy occur in life everywhere… and once you start noticing it, something happens, you find it’s always there. Joy becomes something you can count on.” That’s because you’re familiarizing the mind with joy, he explains.

I feel like this is starting to happen to me. Still not reliably, still not always, still easily broken by various emotional upsets.

But I still feel like I’m making definite progress.

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