Joy is Its Own Reward

Peter Chapman
4 min readJan 3, 2020

A client of mine — call her Rebecca — left her job recently. I suggested that before we start strategizing about her next job, we spend some time figuring out what she wants her life between jobs to look like. She’s got time: she’s got plenty of savings, she’s very employable, and she’s excited to actually spend some time living her life.

We came up with a list we’re both excited about. She’s going to commit to a regular yoga practice. Sign up for a pottery class at City College. Work her way through Samin Nosfrats’s 10 Essential Persian Recipes.

Before the call ended, she asked me a question: “This is all well and good,” she said, “but is it actually going to help me find my next job?”

This is a common refrain when I invite my clients to have more fun. They’re intrigued by the idea, but they want to know how it fits within a larger framework of productivity or success. They want to have a why that allows them to justify living a more fun, relaxed life.

It’s time to drop the why.

If you’re like most of my clients, you were fed the same success-first framework as Rebecca. In this framework, rest, relaxation, and enjoyment are allowed, but they are only allowable to the extent that they can help us show up for our work. Look at the way Arianna Huffington attempts to convince us to get more sleep: you should get more sleep not because being well-rested is pleasurable, but because getting more sleep will help you win more. Consider the way we talk about vacation schedules, or the ideal number of hours in a work-week: the ideal amount of rest is a point on some optimization curve that maximizes the product of the hours spent working and the efficacy of those hours.

Today, I invite you to prioritize your well-being and pleasure for their own sake. See what happens when you prioritize your own enjoyment of life without requiring some external rationale.

For many of us, this is a weird and difficult concept to swallow. Here are some common reactions:

Guilt. I’ve been given so much, it’s my duty to give back to my family/community/society. I am a bad person if I do not suffer for others.

Fear. If I give in to the part of me that wants to have fun, I will lose my drive. I will turn into a delinquent beach bum. I’ll never come back from vacation.

Feeling Lost. Hard work, long hours, and consistent stress are familiar and comfortable to me. I feel lost and purposeless without them.

“Not Now.” I’m all about having fun, but now is not a good time. If I suffer now, I’ll reap the benefits later. Things will be more fun once I’ve shipped this project/graduated from this job/finally retired.

These reactions are totally normal. Notice your aversions to joy. Allow yourself to catalogue them as they come up.

Here are some ways you can ease yourself into a more joyful experience:

Recognize that joy is a skill

Imbuing your life with pleasure and laughter doesn’t happen automatically once you step away from stress. Joy is a muscle that gets stronger with use. Treating joy as a skill you want to get better at is a particularly useful frame for people who are into self-improvement.

Notice and nurture the joy you already have

Even when times are stressful, our days are punctuated by small moments of pleasure. Keep an eye out for those moments. When you notice joy, make an effort of sticking with it for slightly longer than you’re used to.

Start small

Centralizing your own pleasure does not require that you quit your job at Salesforce and move to Bali (though that may well help). Your current quotidian life is rife with opportunities for more joy. Pick a part of your day and find a way to milk as much pleasure out of it as you can. Maybe it’s the way you get your coffee. Maybe it’s your morning commute. Maybe it’s whatever happens in the 10 minutes after you get home. Whatever it is, take it and gleefully discard your desire to perform it as efficiently as possible. Your coffee time is about you now.

Recruit a social safety net

This is a great tool for people who want to take big experiments with joy and are afraid of losing themselves. Let your friends in on your fears and ask them to serve as safety checks for you. Tell them that if you’re still on that sailboat in a year, they have complete permission to come and get you. Write down a formal agreement.

Hit up your magical friends

You already have people in your life who can teach you about joy. I’m talking about your friend Kevin, who invited you to your first midnight bike ride. I’m talking about Heather, who recently did that pilgrimage in Japan and has a tendency to show up to work with a whiff of adventure about her. Ask these people for help.