I will be joining you in the audience today, readers. I will be sitting beside you and stealing your chocolate biscuits and saying to no one in particular that I could really go a cup of tea if anyone was making one, and then jiggling my leg annoyingly while we read together. Because today’s message is as much for me as it is for you, and no matter how many times I learn it I seem to need to keep learning it again.
Today’s message, a controversial one with a thousand caveats, is: do things that make you feel joyful.
Before we get into it, let me address your concerns. No, I don’t mean only do things that make you feel joyful. Yes, I do mean do things that make you feel joyful even if you feel you haven’t earned them. No, I don’t mean that if you cannot feel joyful right now that that is your fault. Yes, I do mean do things that make you feel joyful even while your to do list extends to the horizon.
Before we get into this too far, let me make a distinction. In this article I will advise you (and myself) to do more joyful things. I want us, though, to hold on to the difference between joy activities and avoidant numbing activities. The line between them is not always clear, and the same activity can fall into different categories for different people. Numbing activities feel good because they offer a temporary reprieve from bad feelings, whereas joy activities are inherently energising and/or restorative. They stoke feelings like flow and curiosity and connection, whereas the numbing ones just block the bad feelings and give you a temporary high, usually followed by a crash. I’m not shaming you for numbing; numbing is a sticky, terrible, ubiquitous part of our culture and I do it too. I’m just distinguishing the numbing stuff from the joy stuff as I make the plea that you do joy stuff.
Starting with the micro
My argument here has two prongs: the macro and the micro, but today’s prong is just the micro. The micro is a good place to start because if you really embrace it the macro can take care of itself, possibly even before I get to write a column about it.
So let’s talk micro. Regularly doing things that are fun and joyful make life better. For me, joy activities include reading very funny and very human non-fiction books, listening to big music very loud, gazing at my dachshund in her sunbeam, and watching masterclasses on career pursuits I do not intend to follow but that I like to put on like a cloak. For you, they may include running about on top of a hill, making macarons, fiddling with a car engine, or playing obscure German board games with friends. The activities I’m talking about are ones that engage you and take you over, make you feel curious and joyful and vital. Most of them don’t take very long (the length of a song to the length of an afternoon) and you don’t have to wait until you’re on holiday to enjoy them.
We lawyers are very good at suffering. There are many reasons for this, but one big culprit is a business model built on six-minute units and furrowed brows. Law is serious business, and in business billing and efficiency matter. Human things like how brains and bodies and social systems work matter much less. Why would you spend time playing when you could earn a few hundred more dollars for the firm in the same amount of time? It would make no sense.
Humans need joy and connection
I am being facetious, because of course it makes all the sense in the world. It makes sense from the human perspective, where humans need joy and connection and a sense of being true and alive, and it even makes sense from a work perspective. At the big picture level, happy employees work faster and are more engaged. At the small picture level, especially if you are doing intense work, time fully away doing idle or joyful things allows for better background processing of information, leading to greater clarity and more frequent breakthroughs in your work. I know of more than one senior litigator who schedules “staring out the window” time the day before big hearings.
Remember, readers, I’m not advising doing your joyful pursuits during work time; you do need to get your work done. I am saying do these things in a lunch break, at the weekend, after work, or before bed, and you may find you can suddenly do your work that much more easily. (The utopia version of this is employers who do understand the role play plays in excellence and productivity at work and who allow you to do fun things at work, but we are some way off from that.)
Remember, also, that I am not saying only do joyful things. It feels necessary to repeat that point because, as all or nothing types, most people reading this will read the message as “drop all your obligations and go to the beach all day”. That might be good advice, but it is not what I am saying, and I have not met many lawyers who were at risk of it.
The alternative to working all the time is not falling into a life of sloth where you meet none of your obligations. It is just planning a dinner party for friends. Or doing a day trip to the country on a sunny day with your favourite music playing. Or writing dumb short stories about a character named “Bip” in the notes app on your phone.
Living without regular joyful pursuits is very hard. It is draining. It makes you feel sluggish and low and makes you snap at people and feel slightly out of control at all times. If we bring it back to the work context, simple overwork reduces productivity significantly over time, to the point where it might feel like you are working harder than ever, yet you are able to get less done.
Joyful is productive
By contrast, feeling joyful is a very productive emotion. Personal anecdote time.
I read a lot, and always put off the books I know will make me laugh out loud and feel utterly delighted while slogging through the ones that I know are good for me that are pretty hard going (you know, vegetables in book form). One time recently, though, I decided to read a fun book (Animal by Sara Pascoe, thanks for asking) before I finished my book on creativity in schools. I mean, can you imagine. But then I noticed, reading the fun book that made me laugh energised me. It sent me eagerly into my unrelated work, humming a happy tune. I was more productive the week I was reading that book than I had been in some time.
Some of you reading this, if you are anything like me, will still be fixed on whether or not you have earned your fun activity. The logic of the practical benefits of doing fun things just because they are fun does not persuade you, because you learned when you were little that rewards must follow work, and to deviate from that framework would make you a bad person indeed.
The problem is that that basic premise, basically a good one, has distorted, so that the work required to earn rest, joy, time off, idleness, is never done – can never be done. It is the problem of positioning your goalposts on the horizon. That is a terrible place for them, not least because it is very hard to get them to balance on the water.
To you people – my people – let me tell a crazy story about what happens when you ignore the “keep working at all costs” voice. In my case, in order to do a fun thing before I have “earned” it, I have to have an argument with a very powerful and persistent voice in my head that is resistant to logic and fairness. The times that I have just bypassed the voice and done the fun thing, a funny thing has happened: the sense that I had to earn the fun thing just … disappeared. I realise again that as humans we have a capacity for joy and play that is innate, and that we should let ourselves access that capacity. It makes us more alive. As I say, this has happened many times and the lesson has yet to take permanent hold. But I’m hopeful.
So please, dear readers, take a moment to enjoy something, to do that thing you love but never seem to have time for. Do it today, or this weekend, or plan it into next month. And then do more of it. Let’s embrace the micro version of doing joyful things so much I never have to come back and write about the macro version. It’s important.
Katie Cowan firstname.lastname@example.org is a former lawyer. She is now director of Symphony Law, a consulting practice for lawyers. Katie is advice columnist for LexisNexis NZ’s Learn Law life platform and hosts The New Lawyer podcast.