A couple of weeks ago, I was concluding a counseling session with David (not his real name). The next day, he would be leaving for his daughter’s wedding. I asked the question I frequently pose to pre-wedding brides, grooms, fathers or mothers. “What is your intention for the day of the wedding?” I normally require a one to three-word answer that can be used as a mantra to set a course and keep on course through the inevitable imperfections of the much anticipated, pressure-filled day. What was David’s answer? “I just really want to be joyful on that day!” His response necessitated further reflection that spilled over the boundaries of our fifty-minute hour. Despite pushing all of my appointments back fifteen minutes that day, I couldn’t allow him to leave for his daughter’s wedding set up for disappointment!
In his seminal work, Man’s Search for Meaning (1946) Viktor Frankl compared happiness or joy to a butterfly. “The more you to try to catch it, the more it flies away.” According to Frankl, one is better served by pursuing something that provides a sense of purpose or meaning. Such a focus will allow the elusive butterfly to land on your shoulder. “[Joy] cannot be pursued; it must ensue.”
Back to David. After some soul searching, he switched up his wedding intention: “To be fully present.” In our next session, after the wedding, sure enough, Frankl’s insight was once again tested, and proven valid. By being as present as he could to the people and events of those blessed days, David found that joy was able to catch up with him and accompany him through that day and beyond.
Viewed through a spiritual lens, joy is not a human achievement, it is a gift. Like other spiritual gifts, the trick is to provide a suitable container, such that, if the gift of joy is meant to be given, you will be available to it.
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about building suitable containers for joy in marriage and family life, and by extension, life in other kinds of communities. Over the years, I have been accumulating a series of interventions that aim at building a joyful ecology in a marriage and family. By intentionally engaging in these practices, joy has a way of coming to rest on a family’s shoulder.
EXERCISES TO PROVIDE A LANDING PAD FOR JOY
THIRTY SECOND BURST OF DELIGHT
This exercise should take place when you reunite with your spouse or family at the end of the day. Research has shown that conflicts frequently occur during this hectic hour.
Pick a landmark on the way home from work that is about two miles from home. At this spot, turn off your radio, and end any phone conversations. Now, set an intention to leave work behind. As work-related thoughts arise, let them pass, or make them pass. Intentionally begin to contemplate the face of each person you are about to encounter at home, making the decision to regard them with delight and love rather than worry or anger. As you come through the door, consciously set your face, eyes, and mouth into a smile. You don’t have to gin up George Bailey levels of energy. Be your authentic self as you express delight in your words, humor, or physical affection. Try on phrases like: “I’ve been looking forward to seeing you all day!” “How’s my favorite girl?” “How was your day?”). Even if you are met with a tepid response one or two days, don’t give up! The water dripping on the rock eventually reshapes it!
Real spirituality begins in gratitude; ends in gratitude; and in the middle, there’s gratitude! Likewise, in healthy marriages and families, gratitude flows abundantly! Here is an exercise adapted from Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises (circa 1524). For Ignatius, “gratitude” is so much more than saying, “thank you.” It starts with a deep-down savoring that concludes in expressions of appreciation.
Set a daily alarm on your smart phone entitled, “Stop, Drop, Savor.”
Each day, when it sounds, take two minutes, look back over the last twenty-four hours and surface a moment when your spouse or family member did something or said something that was kind, generous, funny, loving, etc…. As an alternative, you might recollect a moment when one of their signature positive personality traits showed up. Take two minutes to re-experience and savor that moment. At the end of your two minutes, construct a text to that person verbalizing the appreciation you just savored.
CREATE A FLOOR, NOT A CEILING (AN EXERCISE FOR COUPLES)
This exercise amounts to nothing more than placing a once-a-week, standing appointment in your calendar for good conversation and making love. Are you a morning, evening, or night-time couple? Marital research indicates that the average happily married couple enjoys physical intimacy between one and three times a week. This exercise aims to put a floor, not a ceiling underneath your love life.
Begin your date with a cup of tea, coffee, or adult beverage and snacks. Develop a set of questions that takes the conversation a little bit deeper (e.g. “How did that make you feel?”“What’s been on your mind lately?”). This is not the time to address conflicts or problems. Limit your discussion about household administration, or difficulties with kids to no more than 30% of your time. Transition to the physical part of your date leaving plenty of time to enjoy one another.
A HABIT OF INTELLIGENT, INTENTIONAL GIVING
Create a daily, weekly, or bi-weekly habit of doing something kind that means something special in this person’s world.
Here are some examples. (1) When doing your weekly grocery shopping, buy a red rose for your spouse, or a yellow rose for your child. (2) Each morning, make coffee or tea for your spouse, and bring them a cup. (3) Make a habit of providing this person’s favorite food at the right times (e.g. during a stress-filled time, on a bad day, right before a sporting event, during exams). (4) Rather than haranguing them to “get out of bed,” surprise them by bringing breakfast-in-bed once-in-awhile. (4) Make an intentional decision to love your family member when you are doing a chore for them. For example, when folding a person’s laundry, you could imagine enfolding that person in light and love in your mind’s eye.