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The more we attend to joy in the ordinary moments of our lives, the more we experience it and the more joyous we become

01 October 2020, at 7:00am

I got my two children out of bed this morning at dawn. That was after clearing up kitten diarrhoea, medicating the other cat, putting rubbish back into the bins that the foxes had strewn all over the road, packing lunches, shoving some sort of food into myself, triaging the days necessities, organising the ops list at work… All of this completely mindlessly.

My daughter called out for me. Had I forgotten the PE kit? Was she worried about school? Whatever the prob­lem, I’d just have to sort it and get to work.

No. She had looked out the window, seen a pink sunrise and paused to appreciate it. Then she had shared that moment, describing the trees being silhouetted like palm trees on an exotic island, and it felt good. Her delight was refreshing, and reminded me to practise what I preach.

Yes, there is a worldwide pandemic causing death and misery. What is happening is overwhelming if we allow it to be, but it’s also in her life. Being a child doesn’t shield you from the news and the repercussions and restrictions of COVID-19. But being childlike in allowing ourselves to take a good moment and make it huge and very present is a talent we can learn from those to whom we often preach.

It takes effort. We do have to coax these small moments of joy into our awareness. And then hold them there for longer than our autopilot-minds would comfortably do. Because, being realistic, the bigger picture is fairly grim these days. If we can shrink our attention right down to the mundane but pleasant experiences just a few times a day and revel in the joy they bring, then that joy becomes bigger, right?

I’m not suggesting we pretend that we’re anywhere other than mid-pandemic. That would be denial of the truth. We are practised in acceptance from previous arti­cles. It’s just hopping off the hamster wheel of life for a moment several times a day and saying “stop” to ourselves. Stop and look/smell/taste the mundane good things and try to make them mundane great things which take up five minutes of our day instead of a fleeting five seconds.

Why we tend to ignore the good moments

Even without a pandemic, human beings tend to be down­cast. The brain registers negative experiences more strongly than positive ones because it helped our ancestors survive. It’s useful to have a brain highly attuned to threats when sabre-toothed tigers lurk in the darkness.

It’s far less helpful when threats to our physical survival are fewer and when our enduring desire is to be at ease.

We have evolved and we have developed so many methods of making our lives safer and our lifestyles more convenient and luxurious. What’s the point of inventing the wheel and building roads to make life more convenient if we allow the traffic jams to irritate us as much as travelling on foot irritated our ancestors?

Paying attention to joyful moments takes practice. When we learnt mindful meditations and how to pay attention to the present moment on purpose, it was about learning to pay attention no matter what the moment, even if it is a dreadful moment. So, surely, paying attention to a pleasant moment should be easier, right?

Not necessarily so. It’s pulling against our minds which are naturally hardwired to move on from the pleasant and safe good moments to more “important” things. Soaking in moments of delight requires mindfulness. It’s challeng­ing, for example, to enjoy the fact the cat castrate went smoothly when you’re doom-scrolling on Twitter.

Practices to help us notice the good news

Shift your frame of reference

So often, we reserve celebration for milestones such as a wedding day, the birth of a child or a hard-won promotion. When we think of joy as belonging only to big events, we sideline the many small pleasures strewn along the way. Finding joy in the small things makes it far more accessible and creates a positive feedback loop. The more we attend to joy in the ordinary moments of our lives, the more we experience it and the more joyous we become.

Living more mindfully

We talked about slowing down just a tad in order to notice. Noticing the small pleasures will be easier if we make an effort to be living and doing in the present moment. Right now, you’re reading this. Try to put other thoughts, actions and phone pinging out of your mind. Take a moment to just be.

Noticing what’s not wrong

Sometimes it can be as simple as savouring the moment when you do have time for three deep breaths because no one’s bleeding and no one’s crying. Maybe make a list of what’s not wrong – the house isn’t flooded, you don’t have a headache, the car starts, the cat castrate went smoothly, you have a coffee in your hand.

Laura Woodward Counselling

Laura Woodward has been the surgeon at Village Vet Hampstead for over 10 years. Laura is also a qualified therapeutic counsellor and is affiliated with the ACPNL and the ISPC. She runs Laurawoodward.co.uk – a counselling service for vets and nurses.

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