Cute kitten videos just don’t cut it anymore? Sarcastic memes leave you flat? News as reported by Comedy Central no longer makes you laugh? It’s OK. These three tips for finding joy and contentment in your life each and every day can help.
Before we roll out any tips, it would be best if you and I were on the same emotional page. You could just search for puppy videos, but that quick fix isn’t really sustainable. I respect your interest and want to bring you along properly to see things in a more innovative way. Will you bear with me to set that up properly?
To do this right, we need to go deep into the weeds. It’s going to involve math and neuroscience and may challenge your core beliefs. If that’s good for you, read on.
And thank you in advance. Here it comes.
The Mathematics of Emotions
I’m no scientist, and statistically speaking, there’s a fair probability you aren’t either. In fact, I’m a musician, which means by implication that I’m also fluent in basic mathematics, but anyone with an understanding of fractions can grasp the mathematics of emotions.
Take a look at the Plutchnick Wheel of Emotions (also shown below). That’s one of the ways the ever-evolving science of psychology has mapped the basic emotions we human beings experience. Joy is right there are the top – the high noon of this emotional wheel – right between anticipation and trust. Anger is at the nine o’clock position, opposite fear at three o’clock. Sadness is at the bottom six o’clock position on the wheel. With me here?
The point is that taken on a purely mathematical basis, the joy-related emotions comprise only 3/8 of the wheel. Joy itself is only 1/8 of the total capability of human being’s emotional range. If all you ever want to feel is joy, you’re simply missing out on your full capability to be human.
The Human Emotional Range
Now, which of the emotions on this wheel relate to joy and contentment? Hint: it’s a trick question. Why? Because some of us “like” emotions such as sadness, fear, and anger just as much as we “like” joy. We’ll get back to that surprising observation in a moment. (Yes, the scare quotes around “like” are there on purpose. Just go with it.)
Do you see how this wheel shows that anticipation, for example, is a sort of emotional blending of joy and anger? Or, that trust is what comes between joy and fear? It’s not a perfect illustration, and there are more complex ways to grok human emotions, but for this article, it’s good enough.
Our preferences for certain emotions – the ones we “like” – are a part of our internal guidance system. We can probably all agree that we experience more contentment with joy, anticipation, and trust, but there are many of us who find contentment in other emotions, too.
Contentment, preference, or, as it’s used in social media, “like,” are not of themselves emotions. Instead, they describe where we are most comfortable within the wheel of all the possible emotions we can feel. You see, joy, which is an emotion, is not the same as contentment, which is a choice or response to an emotion.
We musicians have a particularly difficult emotional burden: music isn’t all happy! That is, to do what we do with any kind of skill, we must learn to be content with every emotion on the wheel. That is, we must be able to “like” anger, fear, and sadness as much as we “like” joy.
Actors, too, must learn to express emotions by choice. Fortunately for musicians and actors, clues about the emotions we convey to an audience are embedded in the music or script. Our emotional guidance is right there waiting for us to express and convey it.
Successful musicians and actors are trained to dial up the widest emotional ranges and express them authentically. (I chose these two types of artists because of the real-time nature of what they do, but not to the exclusion of spoken word performers, circus acts, and “live” fine art painters.)
How’s your emotional range? Are you comfortable anywhere on the wheel? You don’t necessarily have to express the emotions you don’t “like,” but can you feel them? Can you actually feel the 5/8 of the wheel unrelated to joy?
The Human Emotional Instrument
As with an instrument, our human systems are mostly capable of “playing” all the emotional notes in the wheel. Trouble is, we are often taught early in life to suppress that ability. For example, in my case, I needed years of therapy so that I could re-learn a non-destructive, clear expression of anger, which I’d been taught was somehow bad, and which I’d suppressed so much that it had become a chronic depression. This teaching was part of the belief system of my family of origin, and I didn’t know any better when I was growing up. Seriously though, who wants that?
What musician would welcome the opportunity to perform night after night on a guitar missing four of its six strings, or a piano with only thirty notes instead of eighty-eight? As a novelty, sure, it could be impressive, but there’s a limit to what you can get from an instrument like that!
I get it: no parent wants to raise a kid as some kind of emotional hairball, what if we have been suppressing all this emotional richness to our own (and our kids’) detriment? If we all learned healthier ways to experience – and express – our full emotional range, perhaps we wouldn’t be so close to destructive hair-trigger reactions, more open to dialogue, and less sensitive about challenges to our beliefs! Pulling the arts out of education – STEM versus STEAM – is and was a huge mistake. The contemporary philosopher Martha C Nussbaum discusses this at length in her recent book, “The Monarchy of Fear,” relating the need for the arts using the musical Hamilton as an intriguing example.
Scientifically, isn’t it obvious that joy is just a small part of our human emotional instrument, and that it’s technically just as possible to be content with joy as with any other emotion?
The Science of Emotion
Basically, emotions work like guard rails. They keep us safe. This technology may be millions of years old, but, like most living organisms, the urge to survive, procreate, and thrive is at its root, and our human emotions are a highly capable of advising us to do just that. They have been doing so for quite a while, and they do it really well.
If we get too close to a fire, the heat makes us back off. If someone takes our shoes, we get all lit up to go find them. We do appropriate things based on our basic emotions, such as saving for retirement, offering our kids the love and affection needed to nurture them properly, and working hard to protect ourselves and our families from dangerous situations. If we’re frightened, we jump. We can’t help it.
These are all normal responses to emotional triggers, and without them, we’d get burned, go barefoot, retire without a safety net, raise kids incapable of forming authentic human connections or be injured or killed by something we failed to avoid.
Thanks to our amazing brain’s ability to form new neural connections any time in life (neuroplasticity), we can un-learn habits such as suppressing “bad” emotions and replace them with better habits that don’t damage us psychologically. For example, if I form a habit around playing a certain difficult piano passage with less-than-excellent technique, I have to undo that habit when I discover a better way to play it and replace the poor habit with another, better habit. Simply put, it’s called practice. That’s what I had to do with my limited emotional range, too.
Practice is what re-wires our brains. If we practice avoiding certain emotions, then later realize we actually need those emotions, it takes practice to change the neural networks around the new awareness. Practice is effective because of neuroplasticity.
Imagine this: you have been taught that joy is “bad” and something you ought not “like.” What happens when things that ought to make you laugh leave you flat? Don’t laugh! We can all recognize someone like this from our past, right? The strict teacher. The drill instructor. Do those people ever experience joy? We hope they do. But what if you yourself have been taught that joy is bad? That’s a habit – a practice, if you will – that you will need to change, otherwise you will never have an authentic experience of joy. Even puppy videos won’t do it.
Where Do You Stand On The Emotional Wheel?
Things are about to get real.
For just a moment, take an inventory of how you experience emotions. Using that wheel, ask yourself if you can clearly feel each one of the four basic emotions: joy, anger, fear, and sadness. Then, see if you also have a clear feeling for the emotions in between.
To make it easy, print out this article and check off the emotions on the wheel that resonate clearly for you. Every one of them ought to have its own sort of energy that you can sense internally. Each should feel clear to you in its own unique way. If they are and do, you’re ready to play around with joy and contentment.
I know that’s a high bar to cross. I’m still working on it myself, and I’ve been practicing emotions at the piano since I was three years old! I also understand that our experience of emotion deepens as we ride through life. The same sorts of triggers that used to make me happy when I was younger now feel richer and often touch me more profoundly these days.
There are no right or wrong answers here; this emotions inventory is a way to get to know yourself better. If there are emotions that aren’t clear for you, or emotions from opposite sides of the wheel that feel the same to you, that’s actually a good insight.
Let’s keep this moving forward.
Now, let’s take a quick look at contrasting emotions. Do you have a clear difference in your feeling of joy versus your feeling of sadness? Is each of those distinct from your feelings of anger and fear?
In my work, I often encounter people whose favorite music to express joy is the same as their favorite to express sadness, or whose music for anger and fear is the same music other people choose for joy. For example, I met someone whose joy music and sadness music are both hymns of praise; musically, both songs similar with respect to tempo, rhythm, and melody, although the lyrics were different.
Often, for such people, there’s a belief system that underlies their choice of emotionally supportive music. Many belief systems, for example, prohibit believers from dancing and listening to certain kinds of music, which are basic expressions of emotion that have been around for as long as we humans. (Remember, practice the suppression of an emotion and it will harm you, just the way my suppression of anger became a chronic depression.)
We need contrast to be complete, fully realized, fully actualized (as some like to say). It’s just not possible to fully experience joy without fully experiencing its opposite. If you doubt that, or if it runs counter to what you believe, please take a moment to ask yourself how content you are. As content as your life may seem, a life without contrast can often feel flat and unfulfilled and limits even the experience and expression of joy, regardless of what you believe.
Limiting the emotional contrast in life also limits our ability to be content in life. Keep in mind that there’s no requirement to do anything more than simply feel a difficult emotion, especially those we don’t “like.” There’s no harm in feeling it, and separating the experience of the emotion from the expression of it is a good way to stay out of harm’s way while still being fully actualized.
Your Emotional Range
Please ask yourself if, for whatever reason, you have learned to suppress any of the emotions on the wheel. Be honest. If you didn’t tick every emotional box on the wheel, it’s possible that you, like me, learned to suppress some of them and have formed a habit of doing so. Shielding ourselves from emotions we don’t “like” is the same as a musician attempting to give a convincing performance on a defective instrument. Also, experiencing every emotion the same way is similar to having a musical instrument that can only make one note.
The point is that feeling anger doesn’t also require that you break things and hurt people (or argue with them vehemently on social media the way you never would in real life); there are other much less destructive ways to use the feeling of anger. The idea is to not suppress it! Same goes for fear. Bottling up fear can lead to phobias of all kinds.
To reiterate: often, for whatever reason, we learn to suppress the emotions we don’t want. Instead of feeling the anger, we try to paper over it with hymns of praise or songs that try to re-align our unwanted “bad” emotions to ones we prefer.
Before we move forward, please take a close look at the wisdom literature of your core belief system(s): does it support a healthy experience and expression of all emotion? The three major monotheistic religions, as well as Buddhist and Hindu traditions and many agnostic or atheistic belief systems support emotional contrast; they differ mainly in the how they advocate our expression of the energy in that contrast. In America, for example, our deep roots in European Puritanism have put the brakes on the expression of about half of the emotions on the wheel. To dig deeper into that observation is beyond the scope of this article, so please be gentle with yourself as you allow what may be a new experience of emotion to touch you, even as you stay true to your limited expression of those same emotions.
If your comfortable emotional range extends only to half of the wheel, wouldn’t you agree that you have room to grow? To do that, introduce a contrast. There’s nothing noble about resisting an emotional experience when that experience happens in safety, as it does in the movie theater or during an altar call or funeral. The nobility is found in resisting the potentially-hurtful expression of the emotion. In simple terms: feel it fully, then choose your response.
Three Tips For Finding Joy And Contentment In Your Life Each And Every Day
At last! Now you’re ready to put all this into practice.
I offer these tips to you from my own experience as a musician and human being. They work for me. Without making any claims, I invite you to see if they work for you. You may be sure that musicians (at least) have benefitted from practices like this for thousands of years – as long as there has been music, really. You may also rest assured that these practices are safe. If you feel more comfortable trying them with a board-certified music therapist as your guide, please reach out to one! They are amazing and ready to help. The point, though, is that you can do this for yourself – no second-party therapist required.
First Tip: Expose Yourself To Emotion
This practice invites you to get to know the unfamiliar emotions. It’s safe. The objective is to become more familiar with emotions that aren’t as clear – the ones on the wheel that didn’t get your check mark. It’s also useful when opposite emotions seem to feel exactly the same. It’s an easy practice, and can even be fun.
We start with emotions that may be unfamiliar to you. Here’s how it works.
- Grab your favorite music player device and launch Pandora or Spotify or any app that lets you choose music by the emotion it contains.
- Using over-the-ear headphones while sitting in a safe, comfortable chair where you won’t be disturbed or distracted, use your music app to choose an emotion that, for you, is either unfamiliar or indistinct from others. Choose from the big four: anger, fear, sadness, and joy.
- Let the music play. As it does, you may find that you resist or don’t “like” what you hear. As much as possible, remove your judgment and/or preference from the listening experience. If the music has lyrics, catch the message. If you have a visceral response to the music, know that you are safe and that you can unpack that response to understand the emotional content in it. As you practice, this part will get easier!
- After ten minutes (sooner if you have to), stop the music. You can repeat this again any time with any emotion where you want or need more contrast.
With practice, you will find that experiencing unfamiliar or taboo emotions can be quite comforting. Just knowing that you can feel these uncomfortable emotions is a good start. Actually experiencing them may require more practice, but there’s no requirement here to actually express the emotion, so using music is quite safe. Similar to learning a new language, this practice will also introduce you to and familiarize you with a new way of internal awareness. At first, this may feel like a new kind of communication…between yourself and how you feel.
Second Tip: Expose Yourself to Contrast
Here’s a secret: you get a bigger emotional pop when there is a clear – sometimes dramatic – contrast between one or more emotions. Comedy uses this element of surprise to create mirth. In this practice, you will invite contrast.
We’re going to use another musical practice to help build your skills. The idea here is to experience a musical pivot – I like to call it a “corner” – between two contrasting emotions.
- Prepare to listen as you did for the First Tip. This time, though, you’re going to use two contrasting emotions. Choose them from opposite sides of the wheel to maximize the contrast, such as joy and sadness, or disgust and trust, or anticipation and surprise. Got it?
- Using your music app, choose the first emotion (let’s start with sadness as an example) and allow that music to play for five minutes. Without judgment (no “like” or “dislike” please), notice how you respond and how deeply you experience the emotion of sadness.
- Now, choose the contrasting emotion (joy) and allow that music to play for five minutes. Also without judgment, notice how you respond and how deeply you experience the emotion of joy.
To make this a little easier, you could put together a playlist of a few “sadness” songs followed by a few “joy” songs. Listen to the list in order. Notice the pivot that happens when the music changes from sadness to joy. That’s a powerful musical and emotional corner. The idea here is to learn how that feels and to introduce you to one possible practice of making that emotional shift happen.
Third Tip: Choose Contentment
Now that you’ve begun to form practices around experiencing unfamiliar emotions and becoming comfortable with contrast, it’s time to give you what you’ve been patiently waiting for: finding joy and contentment in your life each and every day.
I’m not just going to tell you to play happy music! That would be like knee-jerking to kitten videos, and you deserve better. The whole point of this article is a more fulfilled experience of being you, content. Listening only to happy music is an emotional flat line.
For clarity: contentment is a choice. I mentioned earlier that we can be content with any emotion, which might have sounded strange at first, but I can be quite content listening to or performing sad music. Why? For me, it is similar to being with a friend who’s sad. I’ve come to know “my” sad music really well, and I’m on good terms with it, just as I’m on good terms with my friends even if they are sad. Performing or listening to sad music allows me both to experience the sadness and express it safely, without harm to myself or others. I’ve practiced that for so long that, like an actor, I feel comfortable with sadness, and can choose it any time I need it.
(Does this cute cat picture help?)
You can actually get to contentment, too, with any of the emotions on the wheel. All it takes is a little practice. Ready?
- Prepare to listen as you did for the First Tip.
- Pick one emotion that is most present for you right this moment. No judgment; just allow the emotion you are feeling to become fully present in your awareness. Recognize it clearly. Got it? Good.
- Using your music app, choose that emotion. Play the music the app offers you without judgment (no “like” or “dislike”). Notice how you respond and how deeply you experience the emotion in the music. If you feel a response while listening – perhaps crying if sad, racing heart and tension if fear or anger, blissful relaxation if joy – that’s fine and normal but not necessary. With practice, you may naturally express more of what you experience.
- After only nine minutes, stop listening. You may find that you want to stop earlier; at first, stay with the music for the full nine minutes. With practice, you will discover how much listening you need to fully experience and express an emotion for yourself. When you have a full expression of the emotion, you will come to feel a sense of completion about it. That sense of completion is what you want.
- Now that you’ve played out the energy in the emotion, you can choose what to feel next. If contentment is what you want, you’re ready for that. And, if joy is the emotion you want to experience during that contentment, choose one song you love that, for you, is your joyful song. (You could choose any contrasting emotion here, but we’re working with joy and contentment, right?)
The power of completion can get missed when we discuss emotions. Often, our judgmental preferences can get in the way of this completion. In my own life, when I suppressed anger, I cut myself off from the natural completion of that emotion – the complete experience of anger. The expression of that anger did find a useful way into my performance on stage, but I had to re-learn that expression of anger in other more practical, useful, off-stage ways, too, versus stuffing it back inside.
Once an emotion has played inside us for a while, especially when we bring our focus to a full experience of that emotion, its energy is spent, leaving us ready for something else. This practice allows that process to happen.
Of course, allowing anger – or any emotion – to play within us can be done with this musical practice or in any number of other ways. High-energy physical activities are great for expressing anger, for example. I can have a full, non-musical experience of sadness in a cemetery or at the shore. Often, walking on the beach connects me deeply to joy. There’s a choice here, but to prepare for that choice, an intentional listening practice – for me – works and feels best.
There’s something magical about music, too: humans respond so deeply to it in so many ways that neuroscientists often use a music stimulus to study the brain. This built-in deep resonance humans have with rhythm and sound means that the physiological effects of music on us are the same whether we listen to a recording or simply recall a song to memory and let in play in our minds. Therefore, with practice, you won’t need a music player to get the same results!
That’s a Wrap
Before we leave this article aside and send you on your way to practice the three tips, let’s take a moment to review the important points.
- We humans are capable of a wide range of emotions, even if we have learned to suppress many – sometimes most! – of them
- We can practice habits that support us emotionally, even if that means re-wiring our internal systems to become more adaptive to unfamiliar emotions
- There are many ways to experience undesirable emotions without harm, and this is a healthy thing to do versus keeping those emotions unexperienced inside us
- The full expression of an emotion – especially the ones we don’t want! – frees us to make a conscious choice about the next emotion we do want to experience
You’ve got this. To solidify your practice, teach others the three tips. The world needs more joy, wouldn’t you agree? If these tips for the journey for joy aren’t working for whatever reason, please reach out for questions, coaching, and encouragement. We are here for you.
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