Finding joy in smaller things

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One way I have always got through difficult moments is by thinking ahead to what good things are yet to come. It might be a holiday, a social event with friends, or the moment I save enough money to buy something I’ve really wanted. It’s a flawed coping mechanism really, because as soon as you don’t have anything concrete to focus on, life can seem a bit stale. In the context of a bustling Oxford life, things to look forward to occur quite regularly; even when I’m at home there’s the promise of doing something fun at least once in the vac. Yet, here we all are, stuck indoors, with no summer term to focus on, and no definitive end date in sight. Maybe you’ve had to cancel longstanding plans, something that you’ve looked forward to for months, maybe its more simple, the fact you can’t meet up with old friends from home. I am sure I am not alone in feeling unmotivated. I can’t speak for finalists as I am not one, but certainly what would keep me pushing on with revision and the struggle of studying so hard so often would have been the promise of all the wonderful celebrations that occur once it’s all over. Motivation for me has often come from the idea that things don’t last forever, so what do you do when it seems like they will?

There is joy in smaller things if you manage your expectations.

It occurred to me whilst watching an episode of ‘The Good Doctor’ that people can find the same amount of joy in wildly different things. In this episode, the main character, Dr Murphy, is treating a cancer patient who has months left to live. This man decides to spend all of his retirement money on extravagant things to make the most of the life he has left to live. Dr Murphy doesn’t understand the need to be so over the top. For him, this man’s happiness is “too loud” and contrasts his own joy which is in small things.

For most, Oxford is a “loud” kind of happiness. We have a lively social calendar despite all the work, and summer term especially is packed with eventful (and sometimes pricey) occasions. Unfortunately, we can’t enjoy these things anymore, but we can still be happy. There is joy in smaller things if you manage your expectations. Satisfaction comes in many forms, all the way from the first sip of a well-made cup of tea, up to the thrill of stepping off a plane into a foreign country. The difference with small things is that we don’t tend to anticipate them for as long as we do the big stuff, and anticipation is a big determiner of how happy we are, but it’s also a dangerous thing. Live in anticipation of something for too long, only to have that taken away, can result in a much greater negative response. Likewise, anticipating how something will play out too rigidly can leave you disappointed when it doesn’t go ‘according to plan’.

As soon as you don’t have anything concrete to focus on, life can seem a bit stale.

What’s great about a small thing is rarely can you anticipate them for too long, and rarely do they go so wrong you can’t still enjoy them (it also helps that it’s much easier to just do it again if it’s not perfect). Bake a cake and it falls apart when you take it out the oven? Try again tomorrow. Make a mistake while painting? Cover the mistake and go over it. It’s in a situation like this that we all need to focus on the little joys of our lives, because we can’t do anything about losing out on the big stuff, and we all still deserve to be happy.

The idea of minimalist living is a trend that has had a surge in recent years and it’s the idea that we have too many things in our lives, more than a human could ever need. All humans have the capability of becoming complacent to the joys of their surroundings, that the ‘grass is always greener on the other side’ and we long for things we’ve never known or know only rarely. “Loud” happiness is usually rare happiness, but even the noisiest events can become mundane if done too often, and small joys are done all the time.

How then can we stop ourselves becoming bored with the stuff we enjoy? Variety is key. Doing something you do all the time but a little different is important, but so is putting a little more thought into the little stuff. It might sound a little bit stupid for some, but this I don’t mean that getting excited about your morning coffee the night before you go to bed is going to replace the feelings of a post-exam garden party, but it might just keep you going until we get those bigger things back.

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