Tired Parent’s Top 6 Mental Hacks for Bringing Back the Joy
I have first-hand experience of losing all joy after losing all sleep. It’s possible to get the joy back.
The Sleep Deprivation
Before baby number one, I was a very joyful person. I enjoyed all the little things about my everyday life. Got excited about trying new foods. Tried new sporty activities with enthusiasm. Cherished every minute with my other half. Smiled a lot.
But then, along with the wonderful baby, came the horrid sleep deprivation. And along with the sleep deprivation came the anger, the frustration and the disappointment (in myself), to name a few fun emotions. There was no more room for joy. Smiles were reserved only for the baby to whom I devoted all the energy I had left.
I cried daily (secretly in the bathroom when I was able to go there without the baby), because I was afraid I wouldn’t have enough energy to make it until the end of the day. I was miserable.
Thankfully I have the joy back in my life now. It’s not that outer conditions would have changed a lot. Baby # 1 didn’t start sleeping for a long time. And baby # 2 came to the world. So, sleep deprivation is still here. But I guess my inner conditions have changed because I smile again. Even to others besides my babies.
I’m not saying I’m all joy all the time. No, I still enjoy full spectrum of emotions. But I know I have changed for the better.
Here are the mental hacks I use.
Mental Hack # 1: Start Fresh
So, you have been mean to everyone. You have said things you regret. You’ve been angry (passive or active type).
(Not that this would give us a permission to be jerks, but sleep deprivation does make anyone more irritable, more depressed and more prone to act on an impulse. I’m guessing the logical thinking part of the brain isn’t working at full speed.)
But guess what? You can start again today. From square one.
A lot of people keep up identities they have created themselves, no matter how useless they are. Some consider themselves as angry persons. If they have been jerks, they are going to be jerks in the future.
It doesn’t have to be like that. You haven’t smiled or laughed for days? That’s okay. Smile and laugh today.
Let go of the anger. If you can’t let all of it go today, maybe part of it? The rest tomorrow.
Mental Hack # 2: Learn to Control Your Attention
Most of us have learned that if you are an optimist, you’ll be overall happier in your life. If you are a pessimist, it’s harder for you to be happy. And this is always presented so that you are born with that quality and you’ll die with it too.
That’s just not true. Our brains rewire themselves all the time.
So yes, you might have certain unproductive, negative thought patterns. But you can always learn new ones. All it requires is deliberate practice. Practice in controlling your attention.
You are more joyful or less joyful depending on what you pay your attention to. You can focus on a negative thought or feeling. Or you can focus on other things.
Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.
Psychologist Daniel Kahneman / Nobel Prize Winner
Mental Hack # 3: Look for It
Deliberately search for little cues that give you joy. The beautiful things are everywhere, waiting to be noticed. The big smile of your child, the sunshine, the hug, the nice words.
Search and focus.
Think about it: It makes sense to look for nice things and to be really selective on what you pay attention to. You don’t want wrong things penetrating your mind. You want to let in things that make you happy.
Mental Hack # 4: Separate the Things You Can & Can’t Control
Divide things in your life to two categories; 1) things you can’t control and 2) things you can control by the choices you make.
What Comes to Category # 1: Things You Can’t Control
It does no good to worry about things in this category. When you notice e.g. a feeling of fear towards things you can’t control (e.g. fear that someone else judges your choises), notice the feeling of fear but then, let it pass. Shift your focus to your actions.
You can’t control other people. You can’t change your childhood. You can’t change what you did in the past. Don’t fight with things you can’t win. Don’t waste your life.
Your stress levels will go down significantly when you accept the things you have no control over. You’ll have a lot more room for joy. No longer will your whole mind be taken over by regret about things you did or anger about what was done to you.
What Comes to Category # 2: Things You Can Control
You have the power over your mind and over your actions in the present moment.
You don’t control the external events. Only yourself; your mind and your actions. But that is enough.
Even if the world was in chaos, you can have peace inside. Because you know what you can control and what not. Direct all your energy towards things you can control.
At Alcoholics Anonymous’ recovery programs they teach the Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971)
What does this have to do with joy? The peace inside you enables joy.
Mental Hack # 5: Drop the Judgment
A normal thought patterns: “My child is behaving badly. He came to bother me and the baby when we were nursing. Even though he knows baby needs to eat and is distracted easily.”
Here’s a wild idea; what if you didn’t give any label to your child’s behavior? Leave the ‘badly’ and ‘bother’ out of the sentence. Crazy, right?
But now, when you leave the judgment out, you have much more room in your brain for problem solving. Why would he come to us, even though we are nursing? Then it comes: he wants connection.
I ask to make sure (although older, we are no mind readers): “Do you want to be close to us also?”
Him: “Yes, I don’t want to be alone.”
Me: “Ok. Please, come next to me on the other side, but let’s be real quiet so baby eats well and grows up big – just like you.”
And then there was closeness, connection and joy. (Okay sometimes problem solving takes longer. But always, always, problems get solved faster when you leave out the judgment.)
Mental Hack # 6: Stay in the Present Moment
I sit on the corner of the sandbox watching my son play with trucks. But I’m not really watching as in my head I see the dinner I should cook. “So much vegetable chopping I should do when we go back inside. I wish I could just sit at the table and someone else would serve dinner to me. I have no energy to cook anything. I’m just too tired.”
My son asks to play with the trucks with him. I decline. I have no energy. You guessed it, thinking about the future drained the rest of my energy.
But there’s another way. By staying in the exact present moment (not one minute later), you are able to tap into your inner energy and feel joy. When you shift your full attention to what you are doing now, you’ll get immersed in your life (instead of immersing in negative thoughts).
As a by-product, your undivided attention is the greatest gift you can give to your loved ones.
Practice Makes Perfect, Even with Mental Skills
Mental skills are just like physical skills. They need practice. If you have been miserable for a long time, to start experiencing more joy, deliberate change in thinking is needed.
Fortunately the prize is great. With these mental skills, you’ll learn to access stimulus-free joy. Meaning, this joy is independent of pleasure from sense stimulation (e.g. eating chocolate) or ego stimulation (e.g. praise from a boss). Those can also be used for pleasure and joy, but they are very temporary.
Start easily and peacefully with just one skill. Give some real thought to it. How does it apply to your life?
When the first skill becomes more automatic, add another one to your joy-toolbox.
Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still.
Learn More from Books (Highly Recommended):
Tan, Chade-Meng: Joy on Demand: The Art of Discovering the Happiness Within. HarperOne, 2016.
Holiday, Ryan: The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living. Portfolio, 2016.