Spoiler alert: You don’t need to learn the latest remedies, nor change who you are or how you think.

This article was originally published in ThriveGlobal on July 23, 2020: https://thriveglobal.com/stories/how-to-reclaim-enjoyment-and-energy-every-day/

What if you could wake each morning to enjoyment and energy, despite being in home isolation?

Or to phrase the question differently – what gives us joy and energy? And how do we ensure we get a dose of it every day?

I’m going out on a limb here – but it’s not the things you do each day that give you enjoyment and satisfaction. Occupational theory – the theory of the things you do that occupy your time and energy – tells us that what you actually do (or don’t do) each day is not the critical factor. It is the why you engage in activities that gives meaning and purpose to your daily life; and it is your perception of how closely you achieve the why that gives enjoyment and satisfaction.

Unless you clearly understand why you do something, you won’t be able to decide whether you achieved the desired outcome, nor whether you are happy with the result, and therefore whether you feel a sense of satisfaction and pleasure (or not).

Understanding your “why”

Understanding the meaning and purpose of what you do isn’t as straight forward as it may first sound. Take for example the simple act of having a shower in the morning. Not everyone has a shower for the same reason. You may have a shower simply to maintain your personal hygiene, or you may have a shower to help you wake up, or you may have a shower to ease your painful joints and get them moving for the day. Or you might have a shower for all three reasons.

Now imagine if the water is cut off to your home (hells bells if that should happen in this time of hand-washing) and you can’t shower, what will you do instead? Having a wash with a cup of water as per the army method of desert training followed by a generous spray of deodorant may satisfy the first person; but it will do nothing for the person who wants help waking up nor the person who needs to ease their painful joints. A heat pack may help the last person, but will do nothing for the other two. And so you can see that it’s not what you do but why you do it that is the important factor in gaining some sort of satisfaction from a particular activity – and in finding a suitable alternative if you are unable to do what you’ve habitually done for most of your life.

There are a myriad of things we do throughout our daily lives and a multitude of reasons for doing them. And the “why” sometimes changes as our life(style)s evolve over time. 

So it’s helpful to simply things. Everything you do throughout your life can fit into  the four broad categories (or domains) of:

  • Survival and Health
  • Connecting and Contributing
  • Leisure and Learning
  • Rest and Recuperation.

Survival and Health

Survival and health tasks are what we do to stay alive and healthy – ensuring food, water, shelter, warmth and hygiene. The survival tasks include getting showered and dressed, preparing and eating meals (including shopping for same), paying your rent or mortgage, taking out the rubbish, managing your health appointments and other activities that help maintain a healthy physiology. Conceptually all these tasks relate to health maintenance – if you don’t do them on a regular basis, be that daily, weekly, or annually, then you will eventually become ill.

Man in a bar, fist bumping his friend, enjoying drinks together

Connecting and Contributing

This category describes what we do that contributes to society and connects us to our community. While the first domain, survival and health, relates to our own health and survival, this second category relates principally to other people. It comprises our connections with other people and our place within society; contributing, participating, connecting with others, creating families and communities, fostering cultural continuity.

This category includes our paid work. Regardless of whether you enjoy your job or whether you feel fulfilled or energised by it, it is fundamentally a connection to society.

This category also includes our family roles and relationships – caring for other family members and ensuring our children are safe and healthy; the activities that create the bonds of families. It also includes our involvement in community groups, sporting clubs, cultural activities, and gatherings of friends. This category exemplifies the richness of experience, pleasure and reward from interactions with others, an outcome that has value to others and activities that foster relationships and communities. 

Leisure and Learning

The third category is leisure and learning. These are activities that provide pleasure and inspiration from the activity itself rather than from interactions with other people. These tasks are opportunities to engage your creativity, to learn and develop new skills, to do things purely for self-satisfaction and self-advancement. In other words, ‘me-time’ – even though the me-time might be spent with other people. If you enjoy landscape painting you might choose to sit alone in your backyard while drawing aspects of your garden or you could (when home isolation ends) join a group of artists who gather in your local park. There might be very little discussion while everyone paints or there might be lively banter (art related or not). But the primary aim is to fulfil your pleasure of painting.

There’s no limit to the activities that can fit into this category – what matters is what they mean to you at this point in your life.

Rest and Recuperation

Finally, the fourth domain is rest and recuperation. This domain recognises the need for good sleep patterns and the importance of sleep to manage all the other areas of our daily life. It’s very difficult to function well throughout the day after a poor night’s sleep, particularly after a succession of nights of poor or interrupted sleep. Tied in with sleep is your ability to relax and to recuperate, to have a break from the other three categories, to re-energise or to be calm. This is a category that is often missed by health professionals and is generally not well “treated” within our current health systems, and yet it has an enormous impact on all other aspects of our lives.

Same task – different domains

A particular task could fall into different domains for different people or fall into more than one domain for the same person. Cooking is a good example. Food preparation is part of the survival domain – we need to eat to stay alive; we need to have a healthy diet to maintain optimal health. For some people, cooking is simply something that has to be done each day; for others it is a pleasure, part of the me-time, a time to relax, to be by yourself, to think and ponder (or not), to be stimulated by all the colours and smells and textures of food. For others, it is an integral part of family life and family connections – part of the role of providing for other people’s needs, or a regular opportunity to talk about your daily happenings with the people you care most about. It may be your creative bent, an opportunity to experiment, to learn (or teach). It may be your profession or your livelihood that is a means to a different end. And so the same activity has a different meaning and purpose for different people and may be in more than one category, or may be in different categories at different stages of life.

So we see that it is not the activity or task or role per se that helps categorise the things you do, but the meaning they have for you individually within the context of your daily life and lifestyle at this point in time. It is the purpose that a particular task or activity serves in the overall picture of your life that determines how you categorise your daily tasks. 

Your umbrella canopy of meaning and purpose

When you collate all the activities that occupy your time, and separate them into the four different domains, they collectively form an overarching picture of your life’s meaning and purpose.

They create an umbrella of the meaning of the things you do that occupy your time.

umbrella canopy; umbrella of life

A crucial feature of any umbrella is to have a complete canopy over your head. Just as an umbrella with only one section of fabric is little use on a rainy day, the umbrella of meaning and purpose is only useful when it covers all four domains. When you know that you are not spending all your energy on just surviving day-to-day; when you recognise the importance of connecting with people around you and with your community, of having time and resources for leisure and learning and opportunities to recuperate and re-energise. 

When life changes

When life changes, as it has so dramatically for many of us, take the opportunity to explore the meaning and purpose of the things you do each day, and of the things you can no longer do.

Continuing your community interactions while in home isolation is an important factor in keeping the umbrella canopy fully covered. Exploring your reasons for engaging in your usual community activities can help you find the best ways of continuing those interactions in a different way, while still achieving the same degree of pleasure. 

Similarly with your Leisure and Learning and Rest and Recuperation activities. Which can you do differently to achieve the same purpose? What different activities can you do to create the same meaning and pleasure (of something you can no longer do)?

Which of your umbrella canopy sections takes too much of your time and energy and which section is missing or overshadowed by others?

This strategy for being well and living well, in terms of changing what you do rather than how you think, takes some time to get used to. It also requires practise (often with appropriate support and encouragement) before you can expect lasting benefits. But it does work. There’s a lovely Tanzanian proverb that says:

“Little by little a little becomes a lot”

So start with just one small change today.