In his books about the physiological effects of love, hope, positivity, and joy, on his patient’s recoveries, American oncologist, Dr. Bernie Siegel , leaves the reader in no doubt that these elements are important medicines for the human body. Having read his classics, Love, Medicine and Miracles and Peace, love and healing, I found his accounts of his patient’s experiences, very validating to my own experience, when it came to how things like joy and hope could impact on well-being. Instinctively I knew that when I felt joy and hope about life, I felt a surge of something good go through my body. Dr. Siegel’s books helped me learn how that good surge could make a difference to my physical healing.
There are other doctors too who concur with Dr. Siegel’s view. Dr. Lissa Rankin author of Mind over medicine is one, who explains in her book that the amygdala of our brain has both stress and relaxation responses that respond to our thoughts and feelings, each in turn with the ability to trigger the release of chemicals that can either be more corrosive for our bodies (e.g. cortisol or adrenaline at high levels when we are very stressed), or those that generate natural self-repair mechanisms (e.g. through triggering the release of serotonin or endorphins when we are relaxed and happy), so if we want to be physically well, generating that relaxation response is surely a must.
If we accept these doctors’ scientific understandings and studies, matched with the patient accounts and experiences in these books of how joy has impacted on their lives and recoveries, then the next step is surely applying joy to our own lives… but hmmm… here’s where things can get a bit tricky.
Most of us live in societies and cultures where we are ‘busy’, running between family, chores and work, and if you have any type of diagnosis (as do I) medical appointments too. But being ‘busy’ can be a stressor to our bodies. Stress, of course, as Dr. Rankin reminds us, is more likely to trigger the release of the more damaging chemicals into our bodies.
After being ill and desperate to get well myself, I tried very consciously to allocate time to everything I thought could help me recover, including the medicine of joy. Hobbies, I decided were where my joy would be found, and so I tried to build as many hobbies into my life as I could. But the hobby pursuits only worked out for a bit. Invariably the busy family schedule, or the need to rest and recover because of my ongoing heart condition, began to eat into my hobby time and thus this way of actively pursuing joy dwindled.
It took me a while to grasp that instead of seeking joy separate to the daily commitments, I had to seek and see joy amidst the busyness, not treating it always as a separate therapy. So, I became conscious of looking out for the daily joys in everything.
It took effort and self-discipline at first, to train the mind away from the mechanical ‘doing’ and ‘stressed out’ default response to my ‘to do’ list. In fact, it was all discipline really. e.g. the school commute, long the stuff of clock watching, bad temperedness and re-living the things that had gone wrong to make us late, became the very moment where I had to actively train my mind to choose joy over ruminating on the negative events of the morning, and that meant choosing instead to look at the beautiful sunrises, or colour changes in the roadside trees as we drove along, which invariably left me feeling heaps better.
After a while I didn’t have to go to such an effort to find joy, because like a magnet, it seemed to just be part of everything, even amidst the chaos and busyness and yes, the stress, there was still the beautiful. Scenes in nature, a new flower up in the garden, coming across a beautiful poem or piece of art, a letter or card from a friend, an open fire, a pretty teacup, delightful things crossing my path each day, as perhaps they always had, only now my mind was trained to notice them!
So, has noticing and engaging with more joy in my life, changed my medical situation? I have no idea how much joy plays a part in the overall cocktail of medication, exercise, diet, sleep etc. that I drink in each day to keep me well, but if you were to ask me if I feel better day to day because of my consciousness of joy in my day? Absolutely!
I will leave you with a poem I wrote, called ‘Perfect Joys’… which captures some of the simple, yet precious joys of daily life. I am sure these things will resonate with many of you. Hope you enjoy!
Wishing you all lots of joyful moments, especially in this forthcoming season…
© Pauline O’Shea