Are you feeling unmotivated and sad? How find joy in life again? It’s easier than you think.
Have you noticed how, sometimes, sadness just clings to you? There’s a good reason. Yes, you read that right: if you’re sad, there’s a good reason. And, it may surprise you to know that what triggered the sadness isn’t always the same as the reason you’re sad.
You won’t be sad forever, but, at this moment, it’s perfectly OK to be sad. For now, please accept the sadness you feel, as if it is a gift you don’t want, given by someone who cares. Please don’t resist the feeling; just go with it…for now.
Accept the Sadness?
Yes. Accept the sadness, and accept how unmotivated you feel because of it. These two things go together: sadness slows us down. Why?
Unlike fear and anger, which can arrive like an electric shock and startle us into action, sadness has a different effect. Sadness is supposed to slow us down, to make us take time to reflect on the trigger that made us sad. Maybe it’s the death of someone who was close. Maybe it’s troublesome world issues. Whatever the sadness trigger, the unmotivated feeling that goes along with it is perfectly normal. We’re supposed to take time with sadness.
You – feeling unmotivated and sad – are doing it perfectly. That’s exactly right.
But I’ve been sad for so long, you say. How can this be a good thing?
Just accept it. That’s how it is. There’s no “correct” optimal amount of time to be sad. The length of time we spend with that feeling is as varied as all of us are.
We all have the tendency to make some kind of judgment about how we feel as if our feelings were flavors of ice cream that we enjoy or not. Feelings such as sadness tend to have a lot of judgment about them, but hitting some kind of internal “like” or “ignore” button on our sadness isn’t being judgment-neutral. It’s important to be discerning, but acceptance doesn’t require you to swipe left or right on a feeling.
For example, when my Dad died, I expected to be really sad. I found that I wasn’t as sad as I thought I ought to be, which seemed weirdly wrong. That was me being judgmental rather than accepting. Then, sometime later, a silly unrelated thing triggered me and I wept inconsolably. Of course, it took me a little time to figure out that I was finally weeping for my Dad, and that I’d begun to accept the sadness Dad’s passing held for me…without trying to decide if I was doing it right or if it was good to cry.
When I stopped trying to fit into some way that I believed grief was supposed to fit me – being in judgment of myself for not feeling what I believed I was supposed to feel – grief found a way into me and gave me a healthy expression (weeping).
Accept without judgment and allow the feeling to be fully realized and expressed. Both those things are necessary, whether the feeling is fear, anger, sadness, or joy.
How to Trigger Sadness, Safely and Effectively
Part of my job as a musician is to make music that triggers feelings. When I do that well, the feelings in the music trigger me, too.
If you feel connected to the music I play for you, we share those triggers and their associated feelings. This works in live performance and in private listening. However you choose to hear music, it’s a safe and effective way to trigger feelings. In fact, music is one of the most ubiquitous feeling triggers we have, but, like a demanding toddler or a persistent boss, music requires that we bring our focus to it to maximize what it holds for us.
When I got triggered by that innocuous thing and cried heartily about losing my Dad, I recognized that I had a whole lifetime of unexpressed grief about Dad stored up inside. Those accumulated feelings from my whole life were beginning to find ways to get out, and my job was to allow that to happen. When I started doing that, I also realized I was on my way to joy.
There are songs that make me really sad. When I take the time to really listen to them, and most importantly, allow the sadness to rise up inside me, those songs become pathways through sadness to what’s on the other side. Often, that’s joy.
Do any of your favorite songs do that for you? If so, take a few minutes to listen to them deeply. Do that in a place where you won’t be disturbed, where you feel safe to cry or get angry or just be in acceptance of whatever feelings arrive. Listen without judgment. Allow yourself to be with the music and with however it triggers you. Cry, sing, yell, dance, pray…just allow it all.
Music is just one way to trigger sadness. You may find that a walk in the forest, or along the beach, or connecting in some way with nature can trigger sadness for you. Mostly, a sadness of this kind is meant to be a solitary experience, but you may be more comfortable in a communal place: kneeling in church or attending a concert. Funerals, memorials, and wakes are supposed to be safe places to experience sadness. Be curious about what works best for you, and don’t judge yourself if something doesn’t. Just keep searching for the safe, effective way that triggers sadness for you.
“But I always feel sad,” you say. I get it. That’s me, too.
When Sadness Never Goes Away
We need to take a detour here for a few minutes because there are lots of us who feel that our sadness will never go away.
Some of us carry so much sadness that it feels like we never could know joy. The only healthy way to be with that kind of overwhelming sadness is acceptance. You can’t medicate those deep feelings…that only covers them up. Ignoring, medicating, or working hard to suppress deep feelings isn’t good, either; feelings find ways of expressing themselves anyhow.
For example, my adolescent depression has followed me for the rest of my life. I believe that depression was the result of suppressing my anger. Learning to allow anger instead of stuffing it away has been a lifelong practice. I put some of that practice into music, but acceptance of anger, for me, has been difficult.
The practice of accepting my anger is much easier, though, when I allow my anger to be expressed safely (without breaking things and hurting people), and still remain judgment-neutral. Some things are supposed to make us angry, right? Just like some things are supposed to make us sad. When I learned how to have an accurate experience of the feelings of anger I started my release from feelings of depression.
Persistent sadness, like my persistent anger, is a cry for acceptance. Instead of thinking “I shouldn’t be sad all the time,” or “When will this sadness ever go away?” it’s better to welcome the feeling, even if it’s unwanted. Allow the feeling; go deeply and safely into it; see if there are any unexplored places in the feeling that need your attention.
When feelings persist that way, it saves some time, since we don’t have to find a trigger for them. That’s time we can spend on acceptance rather than resisting the unwanted feeling, and acceptance leads to transformation.
Many chronically sad people have found ways to make that feeling useful. Artists, musicians, and makers use those feelings to fuel their creativity. Others find a safe expression and exploration of their feelings in a hobby that seems unrelated to their profession, but actually keeps them safely connected to feelings they’d rather not have.
For people, like me, whose unwanted feelings seem to never go away, there’s an additional sort of crazy thing that happens: we learn to fake it in public. We figure out how to appear joyful around other people so that they won’t worry about how we really feel. Yes, I know: other people – especially those who are close to me – sometimes see right through me and my bad acting! But I’ve learned to appear as good as possible in the wild while I privately – sometimes internally while I’m acting in the wild – practice acceptance. I’ve learned how to get gold from the feelings I don’t want.
Yes: there’s gold there…even in overwhelming or persistent feelings you and I don’t want. I find the commitment to “acting as if” even in small ways creates opportunities for the act to morph into authenticity, improving my odds to strike it rich with joy.
Now we can rejoin the next main point of this article: finding joy.
Whether you intentionally trigger sad feelings or find them omnipresent, acceptance of the sadness gift may seem strange. Some lucky few of us are brought up to embrace sadness as one of the amazing capabilities we have, but the majority of us are taught to judge our feelings – whatever they are – into two categories: “like” or “ignore.”
Swipe left, or swipe right. Good and bad. Sound familiar?
Here’s another pair of opposites: sadness and joy.
There’s an implication, isn’t there, that sadness is somehow “bad” and joy is somehow “good.”
Physiologically, both of those feelings are simply responses to a stimulus: one set of neurotransmitters goes along with feeling sad, and another, somewhat different set of neurotransmitters goes along with feeling joy.
The Physiology of Feeling
At their root, feelings are really only physiology, and physiology doesn’t judge. Physiology – in this case, our lizard brain or amygdala – only “cares” about keeping us safe, well fed, and procreative. Not much has changed since that part of our brain began responding to stimuli several millennia ago.
I understand good feels better than bad. Sadness isn’t pleasant. But here’s the thing: if sadness is what I’ve got, I’d better get comfortable with it, allow it to work on me, and see if there’s anything in it that needs to be “processed.” When I learn the authentic reason for that sadness, I can grieve it properly, or use it as a tool to energize me or share it with others who are sad for the same reason. If we allow ourselves to be sad on purpose, with purpose, we accelerate our arrival at joy. That’s the process.
So take a cue from physiology and encouragement from the Old Masters (who have been processing sadness this way in ancient philosophy and religion and art and politics since humans grew a neocortex to do so): accept sadness the way you would accept joy.
They say that “having a good cry” is healthy, and I believe it is. Feelings come and go, and, as much as we’d like to hang on to the ones we like for longer, our human systems are built to respond to our environment in ways that protect us from harm (thank you, amygdala!), and only serious training and practice can override our built-in responses. Think of pro athletes or Special Operations combat warriors whose training helps them perform at the top of their game in the face of fear and adversity. What would your training for peak performance with sadness look like? For joy?
If you’ve never been joyful before, it can feel strange the first time you really, consciously, embody joy. That’s where I was as a young adult. I’d been told all my life to be happy, but I really didn’t know how that felt. I was really good at sadness and depression – I gave myself lots of practice with those feelings – but I didn’t have a joy practice. When I learned how to practice joy, everything changed.
That all changes right now for you, too.
A Joy Practice
I found that I had a superpower I could use to let others be joyful. I could make music that made other people laugh, smile, feel relaxed and happy. (You can read more about that in this article.) Once I made that connection, I started to use my practice more responsibly. I looked for opportunities to make music for people. As I began to use my superpower this way, I started to feel joy.
That’s right: the practice of triggering joy in others had the effect of triggering my own joy, too. More important to me that I had discovered a way to create joy!
There’s plenty of evidence that we must first give what we expect to receive, and my experience confirms that, for me, this is true. I suspect it’s true for you, too.
My practice of joy – or more correctly, the practice of triggering joy in others – was still only a small part of what I felt most of the time. It still is today, but it’s a bigger percentage than it was when I started this practice. I improve through sheer determination.
And the sadness? I’ve found that allowing – accepting – the sad feelings when they come or triggering them intentionally are great ways to keep all that sadness from building up inside me. Many therapists have been supportive of this process – how I let go of sadness by allowing it to flow through me. The same process it works for fear and anger as well as sadness.
Joy is Still Fleeting
As much as I love feeling joy, I’ve also gotten comfortable with how fleeting joy can be. My joy isn’t very durable, yet. Fear, anger, or my old friend, sadness, can wipe out my joy in an instant.
What do I do? First, I allow the invading feeling to be fully felt – without hurting anyone or breaking things – and then offer myself a judgment-neutral opportunity to accept whatever feeling comes next. If I am free to choose the next feeling I want (which I wish was more of the time!) I try to choose a feeling I like.
Here’s an example. Road rage? After I get steamed up (it’s important to allow the anger!) I choose compassion and drive more defensively. No one else on the road should have to be impacted by an inconsiderate driver.
Sadness and Joy in Real Life
The world news is all bad. The kids are sick, but not sick enough to stay home from school. No one’s done their homework and it’s time to head out the door and I’ve just remembered the work I didn’t finish last night is due today. I’m running distressed, anxious, overwhelmed, and sad that it always seems like this. Every morning. Even on the weekends, there’s always some demand or another. Where is there any time for joy? How can I practice in the middle of this mess?
Lots of triggers there. It’s important to feel them all fully. That could mean taking an extra thirty seconds before starting the car, just to let all the emotional stuff flow through and go. It will seem impossible at first, but, with time and practice, your ability will improve and the time it takes to exercise it will decrease.
Ninja-level practitioners of sadness and joy in the wild, like Tony Robbins, have taken this to the level of fine art. You can watch Tony at work in a documentary called “I Am Not Your Guru,” and I promise you that, even if you only have time to watch the first few minutes, it will inspire you.
And you deserve inspiration.
You have taken a step closer to joy by reading this article. Now, you have practical ways to use sadness, even overwhelming sadness, to fuel your acceptance on your way to joy.
Stuck? Let Us Help.
We all could use a little help now and then! Feeling unmotivated and sad can be a lonely place as you start a joy practice. Accountability and a fellow traveler often help. You can do this. And you’re not alone. You can work alongside us to help supercharge your process. Contact us here.
Ready for a deeper dive? The Music Care Quest, a fully-mentored online active-learning experience will immerse you in practical ways to meet life’s challenges with skills you may not realize you already have. It’s not for everybody, but you are that unique individual who really resonates with with the power of music and wants to learn to wield it with skill, give it a try. The landing page is here.