Each January, I like to choose a one word theme for the year. This theme is intended to provide a mindset anchor – to help me shift some key attitudes in my daily life and guide my choices of goals and activities for the year. For 2022, my theme is “choose joy.” Usually I pick a one word theme, but this year I felt I needed two words to fully capture my intention.
I think choice is an important aspect of pursuing joy. In so many things, I have a choice of how to respond to whatever comes my way. Many of my habitual responses take me away from joy. These are automatic for me, based on years of these behaviors, and I need the reminder that I can choose differently. Instead of letting someone else’s bad day overwhelm me, I can choose to maintain my sense of peacefulness and connectedness. Rather than letting minor, inevitable, daily irritations affect my mood, I can choose to remember with gratitude all the blessings in my life. I can get caught up in worry about what terrible things might happen in the future or I can choose to remind myself that I’m just fine right now, and trust that God will provide whatever resources I will need in the future.
Although it sometimes feels like it’s impossible to change what are now automatic behaviors, the science of brain neuroplasticity tells me this is in fact entirely possible. Although the brain is most moldable when young, we don’t lose the ability for our brain to continue to grow and adapt to life’s circumstances as we age. Our brains continue to grow more neurons and connect them in different ways.
But making these new brain/behavior connections takes some work. I always visualize my habitual behavior patterns as well worn grooves, like a cross country ski trail. It’s possible to get out of the well-worn path, but it takes some significant effort. There’s effort to just recognizing when I’m stuck in a groove (since it’s become automatic from years of repetition), more effort to lift myself out of that groove and choose a new path, and then continued effort to establish new grooves.
Sometimes this all feels like too much work! It helps to remind myself that if I want change, I need to be OK with being uncomfortable for awhile. I must be willing to resist the subtle seduction of being on autopilot and realize that discomfort is an inevitable part of the change process. Paradoxically, I should welcome discomfort since it’s an indicator that I’m doing something right rather than perpetuating a behavior that no longer serves me.
I’ve deliberately chosen the word “joy” rather than another similar word. To me, joy is not the same things as happiness. I consider joy to be a more spiritual, soul deep emotion, whereas happiness is more surface level and tends to quickly come and go. I feel joy in my heart, and it’s a steady feeling of deep comfort and consolation. It feels like a state of grace, a gift from God. It gives me a steady sense of “rightness” which is very different from the more adrenaline charged emotional boost I get from happiness (although sometimes I feel both happy and joyful at the same time). I believe that God works through my deepest desires, and joy is a sign that I’m pursuing those desires and on the right path for being the best version of myself.
It’s impossible to know what 2022 will bring, both to my life and to the world. But I believe that remembering to choose joy will give me a good foundation for dealing with whatever circumstances arise. In a world where so much is out of my control, remembering that I can make a choice in how to respond to even the most challenging circumstances gives me a sense of hope and greater peace.