The Joy List: What a blow to the head taught me about the pursuit of pleasure
It was December 2017, and I was sitting on a cot in the emergency room of Christiaan Barnard Memorial Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa.
I had a nasty gash on my arm and a lump on the back of my skull. The doctor examined me, flashing a light in my eyes, asking me about my symptoms.
“Is it bad, doctor?”
“You have a concussion.”
“Oh… is there anything you can do?”
“Well, not really. Sometimes we drill a hole in patient’s head to relieve the pressure on the brain. But you’re not that bad.”
I couldn’t tell if the doctor was trying to be funny or serious.
“I don’t need a hole then?” I asked, dazed.
“No, but you should get lots of rest and take it easy for the next few days.”
I wish I had some exciting story to tell you about how I sustained my injuries. The reality is that I slipped on some stairs on my way out of a rooftop swimming pool.
After my fall, I didn’t go the hospital right away, but as I examined my injuries in my hotel room and noticed a general brain fog, I had the minimal presence of mind to take myself to see a doctor. So I called the front desk from my hotel room and asked them to call a taxi to drive me to the ER.
After receiving my diagnosis, I slept in my hotel for about 18 hours straight.
So, what does getting injured on a solo trip through South Africa have to do with joy?
Great question. I’ll get to that in a minute.
Creating the Joy List
Fast forward to March 2022. While working with my life coach, she asked me to create a list of things that bring me joy.
So, I sat down at my desk and filled one page of a standard 8 1/2 x 11 piece of notebook paper with things I thought brought me joy.
These are what I wrote:
- Cowboy hats
- Horror movies
- Hiking in the woods on a fall day
- Finishing a video edit
- Sharing my work
- Fire pits
- Skeet shooting
- Solo traveling
- Personal growth workshops and retreats
- Apple computers
- Making people laugh
- Haunted hay rides
- Road trips
- Skinny dipping
- Water skiing
- Corn mazes
- James Bond
- Public speaking
- Achieving my goals
I filled all the lines on the paper and then put down the list. I didn’t look at it again for about a week. Then came the day of my next coaching session.
I reviewed my joy list again, but this time a pattern started to emerge.
Some fit into the category of “things,” whereas others fit into “experiences,” and still others fit into the category of “goals and aspirations.”
Things, such as cowboy hats and Apple computers, bring me a lot of joy when I acquire them. But that joy has a limit. I get used to them quickly and the joy levels off — this is known as hedonistic adaption. Human beings tend to return to their previous level of happiness relatively quickly after acquiring something new.
So when the novelty of shiny new things wears off, what then brings deeper joy?
I thought back to my solo trip through South Africa and that time I got a concussion. As much as I didn’t enjoy having a concussion in a foreign country — it was scary and painful — in the end, I emerged just fine. There was no permanent brain damage (I hope!).
It also had the side effect of cementing the memory of that trip in my mind. I absolutely loved Cape Town and touring other parts of South Africa during my two-week journey. Being injured there added something resembling a story arc to my trip. Walking around taking pictures all day does not create a good story — it’s boring. But being injured and enjoying the trip anyway made for a much more interesting story when I reflect on it.
Several pictures of me from that trip feature me with a concussion. I’m squinting into the camera, not because of the sun, but because I was struggling to figure out how to take a selfie with partial brain function.
Now on my online dating profile, I ask women to find the picture of me with a concussion. It makes for an interesting conversation starter.
Experiences give me a richer form of joy, especially when shared with people. The memories of those trips adds texture, novelty and variety to my life that breaks up the Groundhog Day-like repetition of experiencing the same workday over and over again. It creates a reference point that says, something different and meaningful happened here.
However, experiences are not the end-all-be-all of joy. There is still another level.
Goals and Aspirations
Over the past few years, I’ve found Dr. Jordan Peterson’s advice invaluable, particularly after reading his bestseller, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. I subscribe to Dr. Peterson’s Mondays of Meaning newsletter. His email that morning contained this passage:
“People experience positive emotion in relation to the pursuit of a valuable goal. Imagine you have a goal. You aim at something. You develop a strategy in relation to that aim, and then you implement it. And then, as you implement the strategy, you observe that it is working. That is what produces the most reliable positive emotion.”
Recently, I finished a video project that I had started last year. It involved traveling to several shooting locations where I recorded interviews and B-roll footage. I directed the production and managed a small team of interns during the project. I sorted through about an hour of footage to find the shots that would make it into the final three-minute documentary.
There are parts of the creative process that are challenging. For instance, I had to teach myself “speed ramping,” which is a technique of blending a sequence of shots together that start out at normal speed and then speed up through a pan or reveal, in time with the music. That struggle is really what makes the project satisfying in the end. If video editing were easy, I would not take as much joy in it.
When I finished the editing and exported the video to a file, I felt a tremendous amount of joy. I clapped my hands and pump my fists in the air and shouted, “Woohoo!” I felt pride as I watched the finished product and was excited to share it with my team.
How others experience joy
Over the weekend, I participated in an astrology circle in Newport. I told the group about my recent insights regarding the nature of joy and I was curious about their experience, so I asked them about how joy appeared in their lives.
One woman said that she has young children, so she savers the short moments of tranquility when she’s alone.
Another woman found joy in moments of mindfulness — turning off her mind so that she can behold and appreciate the wonder of nature.
A man said joy for him is when he adopts a child’s mindset and allows himself to forget about being a responsible adult and just have fun.
There are many paths leading to joy and they can be highly personal ones.
Creating lasting joy
Now I recognize that “things” bring me limited joy and the novelty wears off quickly.
Experiences, especially shared with people, bring me a much more lasting joy, as long as I keep having these experiences. I have set a personal goal to take a weekend trip out of my city once a month, so that I get out and explore the world beyond my day-to-day environment.
But my greatest personal joy is setting out to do something hard, test my limits and watch the outcome. Much of the time, I will fail at whatever new thing I’m trying, but that is an essential part of the personal growth process. Each time, I emerge with a sharper self image. The more I fail at something, before ultimately achieving the goal, the greater my joy at the end of the journey.
So I go out and fill my life with experiences and create memories. I discover meaningful pursuits that challenge me to stretch just beyond my limits. I dig deep and become the next version of myself. And I never, ever stop growing.
Except now, I’m extra careful around swimming pools.