Sail On! Lighten the Load and Keep Moving Forward

I sincerely hope that your greatest ambition in life isn’t to experience joy.

Wait – what did she just say? She can’t be serious. Hasn’t she spent the last three blog posts telling me to get my joy on??

Truthfully, I think people who are focused solely on their own pleasure are not only offputtingly self-centered but also miss out on some of the most rewarding and fulfilling aspects of life.

Instead, I hope the primary goal for all of us is to live in accordance with our deepest values, those “north stars” that guide our daily choices and behaviors to give our lives true purpose and meaning. When our values are chiseled from a lifetime of experience and thoughtful deliberation, they embody our best intentions for living.

Beam of light shooting into a darkened sky

Of course, the quality of our values is important. But I’m going to assume that we’re all conscientious people here and that you, like me, want to make a positive contribution to the world and care for others while also taking good care of yourself. The world needs people who have these “good values” and feel empowered and energized to regularly put them into practice.

It turns out that knowing and living according to our values not only gives us meaning but can enhance our long-term happiness and well-being. An article in UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine puts it this way: “When aspiring to a well-lived life, it might make more sense to look for things you find meaningful—deep relationships, altruism, and purposeful self-expression, for example—than to look for pleasure alone.”

The thing is, though, living according to our values can be difficult and sometimes requires a willingness to do things that are unpleasant and not particularly rewarding in the moment. Think of the person who desires to be a good parent and must deal with their screaming toddler in the most reasonable and effective way possible even when they are short on sleep and patience. Raising a good kid is important to them, so they do what is necessary to parent well (live their value) even when it’s not immediately satisfying.

Dad holding crying toddler

When we commit to living by our values, we commit to making regular choices about how to spend our time and energy based on what will give us deep purpose and meaning over time, not necessarily what gives us pleasure in the moment. There are times when living our values can require long bouts of stamina and self-sacrifice. That’s why a joy habit is so important – not only to our overall happiness but to maintain a regular pursuit of our goals: it keeps us energized to move forward.

I disagree with those who claim that it isn’t possible to pursue both simple, spontaneous enjoyment and long-term meaning. Author Dennis Jaffe, in an article on the virtues of happiness vs. meaning, says, “[An] issue I have with the here-and-now orientation of happiness is that it’s hard to imagine pleasure-focused people working on something important but difficult.”

Two women leaping in the air at the beach

This tendency towards black and white thinking convinces us that we need to make a choice between pursuing meaning or happiness. I disagree. In fact, I believe we shouldn’t choose between them.

Think of it this way:

Imagine your life is a sailboat. Your rudder keeps you on course and headed in the right direction even when the seas are choppy and there’s no land in sight. Your rudder is your values.

But you’re not going anywhere if you don’t have wind in your sails. Joy, inspiration, fun – these are things that lighten the load and power you forward. Our values determine the direction of our journey, but joy and inspiration keep our sails full so we can keep moving in the right direction no matter the weather.

Wind fills the main sail on a boat

A recent study regarding the connection between momentary joy and long-term meaning supports the symbiotic relationship between the two. Roy Baumeister, Frances Eppes Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, set out to study the differences between meaning and happiness and concluded that in some ways the two are closely tied. “Having a meaningful life contributes to being happy and being happy may also contribute to finding life more meaningful. . .I think that there’s evidence for both of these.”

I’ll take this a bit further. I believe our ability to live our values on a regular basis is directly connected to the “joy system” we have in place to effectively deal with those things that can pull us off course. What is your recovery routine when you’re tired? How do you boost your mood when you feel discouraged? What activities help you reframe a day of struggle as an opportunity to rejuvenate?

Click here to get our inspirational guide, 16 Ways to Experience and Share Joy.

Wind fills the main sail on a boat

Should pursuing joy be your main goal in life? Probably not. But I’d argue that it should certainly take its rightful place in your cache of personal tools and resources if you wish to live a life of sustained meaning.

Be sure to keep those sails full. Find ways to have fun and experience joy on a regular basis. Cupcake bake-off? Binge-watching Game of Thrones? Dressing like an alien for the UFO festival?

Hey - whatever floats your boat.

Click here to get our inspirational guide, 16 Ways to Experience and Share Joy.