How to Feel Joy (With These Five Little Words)

The key to a joyful life often seems mysterious or unattainable. It doesn’t have to be. In fact, it may be as simple as listening and responding to five little words…

purpose

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I’m drying dishes and putting them away when I see it once again.

I open a cabinet door, place a cup on the shelf, and I notice the unopened Star Wars video game nestled next to a stack of cups. I think to myself, “I really should do something with that video game.” I close the cabinet door. And then I stop. The video game was given to my son at his sixth birthday party. We already owned it so, amidst the chaos of the party, I’d decided to toss it in the cupboard and figure out what to do with it later.

My son is now eleven.

For five years I’ve opened the cabinet door, noticed the game every time, and then closed the door again, telling myself I should do something with the game. It’s a silly story when it’s about a video game. But it’s not such a silly story when we do the same thing to our relationships and our passions and our dreams…

One Question

It’s not unusual to walk through our lives with a vague sense of disappointment. It’s not unusual to wake with a nameless gnawing in our minds and it’s not unusual to return to sleep with an uneasy sense that something important was missed. We wake up and we do it again and our lives become a question lived: “There must be something more for me, but how do I figure out what it is?”

It’s not unusual to ache for more and not know what the more is.

Except we do know what the more is.

It repeatedly arises within us, and we repeatedly shut the cabinet door upon it.

We know we want to reach out to that old friend and apologize for errant words or thoughtless neglect, but we shut the door on it. We see a tender feeling about our lover traverse our hearts, and we want to reach out and put it into words, but we shut the door on it. We have a book we want to write or a painting to paint or a business to start or a charity to join or a job we want to apply for or a social injustice we want to stand up against, and we shut the door on it. We have places in the world that have been calling out to us for as long as we can remember—the green hills of Ireland or the Black Hills of South Dakota or a beach where we’re reminded who we are or a wooded path we once walked as a child and it makes no sense but something inside of us is telling us that we need to walk it again. And we shut the door on them.

We glimpse—out of the corner of our mind’s eye—what will heal us or elevate us or send us, and we get in the habit of telling ourselves we’ll do something about it someday. And then five years slip by and we’re aching for more but we’ve forgotten what it is. The answer to our ache is as simple as listening to our hearts again.

Instead of shutting the door on them.

One Urge

When I was in the first grade, my family moved to a different state. Upon arriving, I made a best friend so quickly I can’t remember living there without him. I recall a lot of uncertainty and fear, and I recall he and his family, like a lighthouse during a time I was lost at sea. After three years, my family returned to my hometown, and I never spoke to him again. Over the years, I thought about him often, wondering where he was, what he was doing, and wishing I could reconnect with him. And then about five years ago, it occurred to me, evolving technology would now make it easy to find him.

Over the next five years, I shut the door on the urge every time it arose.

Until two months ago, when I finally entered his name into a Google search, and within moments I was staring at his face on LinkedIn. The next day, I wrote him an email. He wrote back. Our email exchange was a brief one. We filled in the gaps in our memories, updated each other about our lives, and traded pictures of our children. There were no huge surprises, except for one:

A heaviness had been lifted from my heart. The nine-year-old kid inside of me who just missed his friend wasn’t missing him anymore. My heart had known what it needed and, after five years, I stopped shutting the door on it and finally listened.

Sometimes, joy is simply sorrow redeemed. Or undone things finally lived.

Five Words

We need to keep the door of our hearts open, so we can listen to our urges and our wants. Many of them are trying to lead us into joy. Yet, when we’ve been shutting the door on them for so long, it can be hard to break the habit and keep it ajar. Maybe our grade school teachers were on to something when they taught us the “Five Ws” of information gathering: who, what, where, when, and why.

Who do you want to reach out to?

What do you want to do with your life?

Where do you want to go?

When will you let yourself listen?

Why not now?

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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Next Post: How Losing Your Senses Could Make Sense of Everything Else

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Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • A Mom

    This post hits a raw nerve with me. 25 years ago, I was a scared, 16-year old girl who chose an adoptive family for her son. I have gone on to finish college, start a career, marry, and have more kids. But I have never forgotten my first.

    Close friends assume the adoption was successful since I’m not a hot mess, but I feel like I can’t declare it “successful” until I hear his side of the story.

    But I don’t want to disrupt his life. I don’t want to disrupt my life. So the years keep going by…

    Someday, i need to hug him again and tell him how much his first mother loved him…then and now. But the risk just feels like too much.

    • drkellyflanagan

      What courage you have to open the door on this desire. You brought tears to my eyes. I trust that if you continue to listen to your heart and seek good counsel, you will find wisdom about how to handle such a delicate situation. My best to you as you do.

      • a mom

        Thank you for this. I especially appreciate that you didn’t jump to a solution, which is one of my biggest frustrations in trying to find someone to help me process this decision. People tend to love adoption or hate it…I’m an angel for giving my son up or a monster. There is no in between for many people. (When the reality is very much in between!)

        It’s hard to find a professional who is knowledgeable about the adoption process enough to feel safe opening up.

        In any case, it felt risky to post this, and I am grateful I didn’t get slammed with judgement.

        • drkellyflanagan

          I’m grateful you didn’t get slammed, too. Most of the time, I find this blog is a really safe and supportive place to comment, and I’m glad you discovered that, too. Your situation is so complicated, it’s hard to imagine judging any of it one way or the other, because your love for your son is drawing you toward opposite actions. Keeping working it through!

  • Bev

    This post reminds me of how we know we have personal “stuff” to deal with but keep putting it off because of other priorities. Then one day something happens and it becomes a landslide.

    I remember the day my spouse told me that she had enough of my unhealthy hurtful behavior and if I didn’t go for help she didn’t know how she could survive let alone the relationship continue.

    Making the decision to do something about the mess I was in was one of the hardest and best decisions I have made in my life. Through a very long and painful process I began the much needed journey of inner healing from some very deep wounds in my childhood.

    Today, many years later I oversee a program called Freedom Session http://freedomsession.org/ in our community which helps people who like myself years ago, come to the point where they can no longer suppress that gnawing feeling that was eating away at them and those who love them.

    Thanks Kelly for these thoughtful words from you.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you for sharing this. I love the way you have redeemed the sorrow of that time in your life by reaching out to help others. I hope you have found joy in it!

  • Kim

    Beautiful, beautiful words to live by! Love all your posts, but this one really resonated with me. Passing on now to my grown children, who I hope will take to heart while still in their twenties!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, Kim! I hope this resonates with your kids the way it did with you!

  • Tommi Foy Jones

    Thank you for this, I needed to read this to help the heavy heart I have had.

    • drkellyflanagan

      You’re welcome, Tommi. Listen to that heavy heart; it will tell you what you need.

  • Tommie Jo

    Thanks for writing on this topic. I always say that I don’t want to wake up 30 years down the road with regret, yet I find myself using the someday clause quite a bit. What are we really waiting for? Sometimes it really is as simple as typing a name into a search engine or getting in the car and just driving. I always look forward to your next post. They carry a little bit of healing in each one.

    • drkellyflanagan

      It can become such a habit to pull out that someday clause, as you call it. The solution is usually simple, but not easy.

  • Sara

    The truth of your words strikes home again…it is absolutely human, the way that the universe talks to us, our guides whisper in our ears – and yet we ignore it. These days I listen more and more, because I don’t enjoy the feeling of not listening. Sometimes I wonder, but eventually I follow the yearning, and I’ve never been wrong yet.

    • drkellyflanagan

      I like that, Sara. When you’ve become accustomed to listening, the not listening begins to feel uncomfortable. I think that’s true. Good stuff.

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  • Thank you for the reminder to live authentically from the heart Dr. Flanagan. Your gift of telling a story while imparting precious gems of wisdom, reminds me to keep telling mine with the voice of a poetess and the heart of an artist.. Monica Macha.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Yes, Monica, keep telling your story!

  • Very powerful reminders and inSpirational encouragement. Really well done. Passing along to the moms I support. Thanks!

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