There’s no need to paint the picture of what we, as a collective of humans, are going through this year. We know. The headlines are well known but what about the less visible impacts – the disenfranchised grief of losing our livelihood, job, financial security, community, ability to gather, ability to see loved ones?
For the first time, our collective mental health and wellbeing is at the front of so many shared and public conversations. It has never been a better time to be open and accepting that this climate no doubt affects all of us in our sense of ourselves and the world around us.
Having run training in Mental Health First Aid with people from all over Australia, there’s an interesting thing I ask at the beginning of each session: ‘What is something YOU do for your mental health?’ The answers are, 99% of the time, something that is done alone, in the zone – running, writing a journal, walking the dog, playing piano, cooking, crosswords, painting, watering the garden, yoga, the gym, singing in the shower, baking a cake, jumping in the ocean. These have been the answers from farmers in North Queensland, musicians in Brunswick, visual artists in regional NSW and bankers in Sydney.
Most of us know and understand that when things get tricky with our mental health, talking to others, perhaps even a professional, or sharing our feelings and unravelling unhelpful thoughts is a crucial practice. But what about the day to day, keeping-ourselves-ok stuff? This is the place for pleasure, joy, awe: delight.
We create, bake, sing and write because of the delight that follows a period of being in a zone of creativity. It turns out that this is a vital, crucial antidote for a hard, tricky time. But you won’t find this pamphlet in a GP's waiting room, or in a Mental Health Services Manual. This is an unspoken, invisible balm that truly makes us human. In the year of fires, floods, pandemics and bad news, we all must work that little bit harder to cultivate delight. Like a seedling, it needs tending. Like a song, it needs to be sung.
Clinical psychologist Mark Baxter sees delight as a powerful way through grief and shame.
‘I see each luminous emotion as having a partner that dances with it in the shadow; and so, with delight goes disgust.’
‘Disgust, when turned upon the self, is the emotion that fuels shame. Shame says there is something wrong with you. Delight, with its wondrous, magical and luminous quality is the essential antidote to shame.’
Look around and notice the many people experiencing shame amidst this chaotic new world. Shame in struggling to cope, even when one has all the things – a job, income, a house, a family. Shame in having to rely on government benefits. Shame in our life choices that mean perhaps our livelihood, it turns out, is a house of cards that has collapsed so swiftly. Shame in not living closer to our family. Shame in how much screen time our kids are having, or not having because we can’t afford those gadgets. Shame in not being uber productive through these last 6 months. Shame that we don’t have new work, new projects, new baking accomplishments.
This enveloping of shame calls for action. And that action is to intentionally and purposefully cultivate moments of delight into our days – the complete and perfect antidote to shame.
As Baxter says ‘to feel delight is to momentarily leave the contracted world of self-judgment and to connect with something expansive and joyful. Delight allows us to open up, to play, to laugh and to let go. Delight sits comfortably alongside the set of self-transcendent positive emotions that are known to have powerful effects on our wellbeing and connectedness. Emotions like awe, gratitude, compassion and love.’
We’ve no doubt heard and read the mountain of advice now encouraging us to practice ‘gratitude’, as a thing, an action that we do. And, in fact, science backs that up with studies showing that people who actively engage in practicing gratitude undergo a marked improvement in their experience of depression.
SCHOOL OF DELIGHT 101
In the arts sector, it is often the work of our industry to create this delight for others – for audiences, listeners, observers. We know the hard work that goes on behind the scenes for these moments to occur.
So how do we purposefully create them for ourselves? Especially when we’ve never been so tired, so stretched, so uncertain about the future. Well, we have to down the tools of our ‘work’ and remember to simply play.
Play invites us to be creative without an outcome in mind. It has no other purpose than to amuse us, delightfully. We have to create time and space for watching, noticing, observing or doing something without any preconceived outcome or purpose. Doodling in your garden. Watching birds in the trees. Getting lost in the harmonies of a beautiful piece of music. Beginning this way, like a meditation, sets us up for being able to experience delight. Because this moment never happens if we are kicking ourselves for not having a bunch of savings or giving ourselves a hard time for not being productive, or a good enough parent, partner, performer or activist.
Delight comes from doing something we love, simply because we love it. Delight can be consciously manufactured, and it can also be stumbled upon. By opening up to the possibility of delight as an antidote to distress, new pathways in our brains are formed and perhaps, even if it’s momentary, life can be a little less overwhelming and a little more delightful.
There’s a reason delight has the word light in it. Sunlight causes our brains to produce serotonin, a hormone that can improve mood by alleviating pain, providing energy and making us feel happy and well-rested. Sunlight also produces endorphins, otherwise known as the feelgood hormone.
Engaging in creative acts of delight also produces these ‘sunny-happy hormones’ and provides a rest from the overload that comes with distress. A moment like this is a reminder that life is actually a series of moments, and this right here? It is a good moment. What comes next is an almost uncontrollable desire to share that delight with someone else. Perhaps delight is more contagious than COVID-19?
Delight is everywhere, even in darkness and an uncertain future. There is no doubt it can be hard to find, and it can feel so far away. But making the choice to ‘practice delight’ might just be the way, when it’s thin on the ground. Like fake laughter, our bodies can’t tell the difference, and fake chuckles always turn into the real thing if we do it for long enough. If we can all take steps towards noticing it a little more and then take time to cultivate it by doing what resonates with us, then perhaps delight can be a nerve tonic, a balm, a tincture to help us get through this shitstorm of 2020 that’s been dished up for us all.
This article was originally published on Arts Hub, with support from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.