Is Joy a missing piece of the healthy puzzle?

June 2020

Photo by Fuu J on Unsplash

Practicing good nutrition, healthy living, regular exercise or frankly, any aspect of wellness can, at least to some people, be deeply associated with joylessness and parsimony.

It seems, on occasion to have become equal to holding back, setting rules and abstaining from the pleasures of life for the sake of discipline. ‘Living the good life’, on the other hand, is hedonistic, freeing and allows us to do as we please as we throw caution to the wind.

Thankfully, however, this constructed dichotomy of healthy vs. joyful is simply untrue.

For healthy so often is joyful. Not in a superficial or aesthetic sense. That, I fear, is transitory at most and relies too heavily on comparison with others. No, I am much more interested in the very immediate and sensory joys that can be found in great food, enjoyable exercise and the sense of mental peace that comes from embracing self-compassionate practices.

The joyfulness to be found in healthy practices is an essential but missing piece of the puzzle and despite it’s crucial role, is one that is mostly disregarded. I think this oversight is often where the mocking, scoffing and even, sometimes, anger leveled against this industry comes from too. It is all part of the same misconception – in our own minds as much as anyone else’s – that we can either choose to enjoy ourselves (and be fun to be around) or we can choose to be ‘good’ and boring. What rubbish!

For how could it ever be possible to eat well for life, if that way of eating is not utterly filled with joyful moments? Even fear can’t keep us on the path of a bland and unpalatable diet for long. Food is, afterall, one if the most important simple pleasures in life. Take that away, and what are we left with?

But finding the joy in eating well, now that is where the magic happens.

It becomes effortlessly easy to sustain, as the reward is adequate for the effort we are putting in. What, specifically, is joyful about our food will be as varied as we are, but I’m not sure there are many dishes that can beat an incredible bowl of sun-ripened cherries, of beautifully slow-cooked ratatouille drizzled in tangy olive oil, of incredibly fresh fish straight off the grill, or greens lightly sautéed in garlic and ginger. It’s far from abstemious or boring. It’s a delight and one that is amplified if enjoyed in the company of loved ones.

But good food is rarely just about eating. It needs to be sourced and cooked first. Again, this can so often conjur up negativity and images of being enslaved to the kitchen. Of hours spent chopping, washing, stirring and working. There is little fun in that, particularly if the whole thing is done anxiously or grudgingly.

Finding the pleasure in these necessary culinary activities comes from reframing our approach. The joy of cooking is found in the creation of something from seemingly disparate ingredients. The alchemy is intriguing and blending flavours is like mixing colours. More brightness, more depth, more tang or more body. You’re an artist of the saucepan, mixing and tweaking until you’re happy with the end result. It does take a modest amount of kitchen confidence, but with the immense volume of free resources now available online, is thankfully an almost universally accessible skill to learn.

Photo by Henry Be on Unsplash

The same idea applies to all aspects of wellness. Take regular exercise, for example. If you want to participate consistently, surely either the exercise itself needs to be enjoyable, social or at the very least satisfying, or so-called ‘Type 2 fun’ – when you get to bask in the benefits after completing the activity. The ‘runners high” for example. You might not love the feeling of the run, but the euphoria that comes afterwards makes it all worthwhile. These are the reasons we keep at it. Ask a keen runner why they run and inevitably the answer is ‘because I love it’. Not ‘because I should do it or because it burns xxx calories’. Ask an enthusiastic dancer, or swimmer, or yogi, or someone who loves to walk, or gym goer the same question and you’ll often hear the same response. They have found the joy and that is why they continue. They no longer do it from a sense of duty or requirement, but an intrinsic motivation for pleasure is what drives them out of the door.

I always find it fascinating to watch young children move just for the joy of moving. They can’t help it – the happiness simply has to burst out of them. I guess we have learnt to inhibit ourselves from doing the same as we have grown up. But it was clearly an innate need inside of us. We just need to find what lights that spark again.

Ultimately, I believe that we are all motivated more deeply by our drive to find joy than we ever could be from logical reasoning. Of behaving in a certain way because we have been told to, or because we think we should. So perhaps that should be the ultimate aim of us all wellness professionals – to help people find their joy. When this overlaps with healthy living, that is the sweet spot of life where taking care of ourselves and enjoying ourselves, becomes easy.

 

Written by my colleague Rosamund Yoxall BMBS BSc