Life with chronic illness is always challenging, but I have discovered some silver linings since I got sick with ME/CFS 13 years ago and my sons followed suit two years later. Although I’ve always been an upbeat person, chronic illness has made me more acutely aware of how important it is to find joys in my everyday life, even when things seem bleak. I’m not always able to do the big things that used to bring me joy – like vacations, long hikes, backpacking, or lots of socializing – but I have learned that ordinary life holds many extraordinary moments of small joys.
During a particularly difficult period in my early years of illness, I began keeping a Joy Journal (I picked a journal covered in polka dots which was, in itself, joyful!). At the end of each day, I jotted down things that had brought me joy that day. Sometimes, after a bad day, I had to really think hard to come up with things to write in it, but I began to realize that there were plenty of good things and small joys in my daily life, despite the boys and I being so sick.
Many of the things I wrote about were simple – singing a favorite song in the car with the top down, seeing a bright splash of colorful flowers in spring, or playing a game with my kids. I gradually began to recognize these small moments of joy. Some excerpts from my Joy Journal during those early days included:
- Cuddling with my son’s soft little stuffed dog, Snowy, and being reminded of his love and generosity in lending him to me.
- The air smells so deliciously sweet this morning – fresh, warm, springtime air.
- Watching old home movies of the boys when they were so young. My heart fills with joy when I see my two-year old in his lion costume calling out, “Twick or tweet! I’m a lion!”
- My morning cup of Orange-Tangerine Zinger tea.
- Listening to music – the rhythms and harmonies of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
- Seeing a shooting star!
- A roaring fire in the fireplace on a cold, wet, gray day.
- Watching a movie with my husband and kids in the family room.
- Being outdoors.
- The bright, eye-popping yellow of forsythia in bloom – it’s literally breath-taking! I feel happy just looking at that bright splash of color.
- Eating – and really savoring – good food with a variety of flavors, made with fresh ingredients, like the crab cakes soaked in lemon I had for dinner.
- Lying in my warm, comfy bed at night reading a good book.
As you can see, none of these things I wrote down were all that unusual – they were tiny moments of joy in a very ordinary, quite limited life spent mostly at home. At the beginning of my illness, when I was struggling with depression and acceptance of my new life, these moments of joy were still there, but I wasn’t noticing them. Writing in the Joy Journal each night helped me to recognize that these ordinary joys were still there, and that my life was indeed still joyful and happy in many ways.
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Once I recognized joy, I was also able to make sure I had more joyful moments in my every day life. I noticed in my journal that being outdoors always lifted my spirits, so I made a special effort to get out at least once a day, even if that just meant lying in a reclining chair out on my deck and looking at the clouds. My kids were often a source of joy, so I tried to give them my full attention more often – to focus on watching a video or playing a game with them, instead of always being distracted by things I needed to get done. I made myself a Feel Good playlist so that I could listen to music that lifted my spirits when I was having a bad day (just try staying in a bad mood while belting out “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor or “Happy” by Pharrell Williams).
I don’t write in the journal every day anymore, but it’s still there to remind me of the joy that is all around me. When I have a rough day or things get bad, I read past entries and resume my habit of writing down joys at the end of the day, and it always helps to lift my spirits.
Recognizing the joys in my life helped me to experience more of them. It’s a self-perpetuating thing – the more you acknowledge the joys in your life, the more joy you have. Take a look at your own life. Keep a Joy Journal or a diary of what you are grateful for so that you can learn to recognize what makes you happy. Every life – even a restricted life of chronic illness – contains many small moments of joy. Identify those moments of joy and celebrate them every day.
Suzan Jackson is a freelance writer who has had ME/CFS for 13 years. Both of her sons also got ME/CFS, but one is now fully recovered after 10 years of illness and the other is in college. She writes two blogs: Learning to Live with ME/CFS (with an emphasis on LIVE!) at http://livewithcfs.blogspot.com  and Book By Book at http://bookbybook.blogspot.com . You can read all of her blog posts on Joy at http://livewithcfs.blogspot.com/search/label/Joy .