Martha Beck says most people live lives that are just… fine. Work isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough. Your relationships are… fine. It’s not that you’re unhappy. You just feel uneasy. Maybe you get a sense that you’re just passing time.
But she also says life can be so much more.
I read her book (that's what this post is about) and she says when we're in alignment with our true nature, we can experience joie de vivre, all day long -
When you experience unity of intention, fascination, and purpose, you live like a bloodhound on a scent, joyfully doing what feels truest in each moment. Your daily work, whether it’s writing computer code, gardening, or building houses, is so absorbing that at the end of the day you don’t really want to stop. But when you do, you enjoy hanging out with loved ones so much, and sleep is so delicious you can’t imagine anything sweeter. And when you wake up the next day, the day ahead seems so enticing you practically bound out of bed.
It can be hard to believe this fulfilling of a life is possible. But I’ve experienced a bit of it.
And think of it this way: the possibility of such a life existing is so wondrous it’s worth reading on and trying the ideas for yourself.
Okay, our nature is this joie de vivre. What’s keeps us from it?
This question reminds me of a few stories:
- It reminds me of when my roommate James wanted to start an email newsletter on product teardowns, but learned his heart wasn’t in it. It seemed like the right thing to do on paper, and he tried to write pieces for it for some weeks, slowly discovering it was an uphill battle. He gave it up. Now he writes a daily email newsletter where he follows his curiosity and he seems absolutely alive doing it.
- It reminds me of the actress that played Sam in iCarly, who turned down joining the cast of iCarly for the reboot for her mental health. Jennette McCurdy turned down Miranda, saying "there are things more important than money. And my mental health and happiness fall under that category."
- And it reminds me of a certain someone leaving behind Mormonism and academia and heterosexuality when it didn't match her nature.
But let me back up and share Martha Beck's explicit answer to the question of what keeps us from joie de vivre.
Martha says culture is what opposes our true nature. Here, culture is the pull of social standards that shape how we think and act.
In my life, I notice the pulls of culture in small and big ways.
- I notice the pull to spend my time dating, and trying to get into a relationship since I’m influenced by society and my parents.
- I notice the pull to stay out later than I want to, and sometimes drink when I don’t want to because I want to please and be liked.
- I notice the pull to agree, to keep quiet about my preferences, and talk about other people’s interests over mine. Again to please and be liked.
- I notice the pull to be productive 24/7 even if I’m tired or don’t want to.
- I notice the pull to hold down a job when I would be quite happy to not.
Life can become a series of obligations real quick if we overly submit to culture and eschew our nature. That's no fun.
Now, it’s not that we want to eschew culture entirely. It’s that we want the freedom to choose when we submit to it.
In September I spent nights reading this book in bed, and one morning I was supposed to wake up early with my roommate and go to the gym. At first, I had a flash of “oh, I have to go,” despite also a tug of “man, I don’t want to.”
Just then I remembered an exercise from Martha’s book:
- Tune into your inner teacher.
- Ask yourself “If I were absolutely free, what would I do right now?”.
- Recognize you are free.
- Do the thing.
So I asked myself what I‘d do if I was absolutely free for the first time in my life and discovered - I was free.
I had a choice! I’ve always had a choice. I can do whatever the fuck I want in life, early morning workouts be damned!
Life isn't a series of obligations for me anymore - it's a series of my choices. I've asked this question in many moments since.
The book has a line that summarizes what we're going for here -
Do what you really want, and life can be sustained joy from dawn to dusk.
It doesn't come easy to all of us. Some people are lucky and this comes naturally to them. I’m not one of the lucky ones, but I can learn. You can too.
So read the book and learn how!
Or listen to Elizabeth Gilbert & Martha Beck on a podcast :)
Related & highly recommended reading:
- Reddit - Don't have goals. Build your life around the things you truly enjoy and goals will come out of it.
- Not Nice - a book how to further operationalize these ideas (ostensibly about being more assertive).
- A Quick Guide to Intuitive Eating - intuitive eating is part of an intuitive life!