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Combat the Downward Spiral: Choose Joy Instead!

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In her book, The Joy Plan, Kaia Roman describes her rise out of depression using a thirty-day plan to increase instances of joy in her life. Here are a few ideas from her book on how to make joy something you consciously do, manage negativity gracefully, and start your own joy plan.

Create a Habit of Joy

Habits are thoughts or actions that have been repeated until they are literally ingrained into your brain via neural connections. Memories and strong emotional changes are particularly favored because neural connections tend to be strongest when thought is combined with emotion. This includes joy. Joy is an emotion that differs from happiness in that:

  • It’s subconscious instead of conscious
  • It’s not tied to external situations
  • Joy lasts longer than happiness

Creating habits that bring joy bring great rewards, but how exactly does one create joyful habits?

Certain thoughts and feelings produce energies that attract similar manifestations. In other words, positive energy attracts positive things, while negative energy attracts negative things. Like attracts like. Whether or not positive or negative energy really do attract similar occurrences, it can change how you pay attention to your surroundings. Pay enough attention to a feeling, good or bad, and you’ll start seeing that feeling reflected in the rest of your life.

Combat the Downward Spiral

Unfortunately, studies have shown that our attention is automatically attracted more to negative information than positive. This is called the negativity effect, and it’s present throughout our lives. Think about it: when was the last time you saw something heartwarming and uplifting on the news? Negativity is all around us.

On the opposite side of the spectrum it takes at least three positive experiences to counterbalance one negative experience. That’s not looking good for us. Kaia writes in The Joy Plan that what we focus on becomes what we experience. Thoughts become beliefs, which in turn inform actions and ultimately create results. If you train your brain to welcome the positive, you will notice the more pleasing things in life.

Kaia learned this while in Spain when she came across a Catholic priest who gave her this advice from meditation guru Shunryu Suzuki:

Let thoughts come and go. Just don’t serve them tea.

Basically, don’t try to stop negative thoughts, doing so will only draw your focus. Instead, let them simply pass by without allowing yourself to dwell on them.

How to Recognize Negative Thoughts

According to Dr. Albert Garoli, people form personas, which are basically defense mechanisms developed in response to social rejection — real or perceived. Studies have shown that the same area of the brain is activated when we experience social rejection as when we feel pain. That’s right, rejection literally hurts. Personas are created (literally created: the brain forms ridges, actually restructuring itself to become more socially desirable) to prevent that, so these defense mechanisms must be good… right?

Let’s take a closer look. Personas can show up in different ways and are given different names: ego, inner critic and monkey mind, to name a few. Dr. Garoli calls them inner viruses. No matter what they’re called, they’re masks used to make a good impression on others and conceal your true self. Once they are formed, they become their own mental entities that want to remain alive. They thrive on stress, creating the impression of rejection. So what can you do about them?

The first step is to recognize when a persona is active. It’ll list repetitive messages: I’m weak. I’m a failure. I’m too annoying, worthless, incompetent… Once you realise the persona is talking, you can deal with it like you would any other negative mental event.

Let thoughts come and go. Just don’t serve them tea.

Emotional Tonal Scale

So the ideal is for us to feel joy every moment of every day of our life, right? Well, no. You can’t feel joy at every single moment, that’s highly unrealistic, but what you can do is make a habit of choosing better emotions. As part of Kaia’s thirty-day plan, she introduces the idea of a ‘tonal scale’ which is basically a hierarchy of negative to positive emotions:

  • Apathy: An absolute lack of emotion towards a person, thing or activity. You’re just blank. I have been there before, and let me tell you that apathy is truly no fun at all.
  • Grief: Sorrow, misery or sadness. Mourning for a loss or change. Grief is better because rather than being emotionally cut off, as in apathy, we’re beginning to feel.
  • Fear: Fear is a motivating emotion — an anxiety of losing something important to you.
  • Anger: When you feel that something isn’t right and needs to be fixed, anger appears. Anger is proactive and gives you the get-up-and-go to address your situation.
  • Pain: Mental, physical or emotional pain is a catalyst for change, like the instinct to pull your hand away from something that burns you.
  • Enthusiasm: Genuine excitement for the situation or task at hand. Enthusiasm is great, but it’s also important to remember that you’re highly unlikely to be enthused all the time — and that being able to manage any emotion healthily is necessary for growth.

Of course, the range of human emotion is much wider than that, but this offers a useful tool. Using a scale like this, the next time you’re feeling an unpleasant emotion you can ask yourself: what could I do to make this emotion, if not pleasant, at least better?

A New Way to Choose Joy

Armed with this knowledge, here’s a technique to begin implementing it: create a sort of playlist of your life. Thumbs up for things that are positive, that bring you joy; thumbs down for things that are negative. It can be as small as thumbs up for tea, thumbs down for pickles; or as large as thumbs up for my loved ones, thumbs down for unpleasant news stories.

Once you can distinguish between thumbs up and thumbs down you can start building up the positives. Whenever you can cut something negative out of your life, try it; whenever you can’t, think of a thumbs up. You won’t regret it.

Want a few more ways to build up your joy plan and combat the negative spiral? Here are a few good reads…

  • Roman, K. (2017). The Joy Plan. Naperville: Sourcebooks.
  • Zander, R. S. & Zander, B. (2000). The Art of Possibility. Camberwell, Vic.: Penguin.
  • Jelbert, W. (2014). The Happiness Animal. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

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