‘Sparking joy’ in my life and research

Like many people around the world, when the new year rolled around I found myself binge-watching the new Netflix series ‘Tidying up with Marie Kondo’. I’d heard of her book The Magical Art of Tidying Up some years ago, but had never been interested enough to read it. In fact, I secretly resented the principal. In my (mis)understanding of the system, I questioned why would I want to live a minimalist lifestyle, and was abhorred by the idea of getting rid of books. Getting rid of books? Please!


Despite being messy and overstuffed, I love my bookshelf

However, once I watched the show (which I succumbed to out of a somewhat sense of guilty pleasure despite my apprehension – I just love those before and after shots), I found that it wasn’t so much about the things, as about the person. It’s not just a case of simply tidying up, as the title suggests, but a case of organising and re-imagining your whole life.

Fans (or in fact, most people, unless they’ve been living under a rock), know that the most important principle in the method is questioning whether each thing you own ‘sparks joy’. This really helped me in my own de-cluttering process. In the past, I’d dithered over decisions, hung onto stuff that looking at it now, I don’t really know why I kept. Figuring out whether things ‘sparked joy’, however, made the process so much clearer. If it doesn’t make me happy when I look at it or touch it, do I really need it, or even want it? No, but someone else might, and it makes me much happier to donate it so that someone who would enjoy it can use it instead.

This isn’t a principle that is restricted to possessions, however, and I’ve tried to apply it to every aspect of my life. I don’t mean that I walk round designating everything ‘joyful’ or not, but I do try to make an effort to distance myself or remove things, people, or feelings that don’t bring me happiness. There’s been a lot of memes joking about this (which I enjoy as much as the next person), but I really do think it’s a good way to look at life, especially as a researcher. I struggle enough when it comes to feeling joyful because of my depression, so a method that really makes me question and examine what I need and want to make myself happy has the potential to make a huge impact for me.

In fact, it has. I’m not saying I’m an ostrich with my head in the sand, avoiding everything that makes me unhappy. Let’s be honest, if I did that, I’d stay in bed eating chocolate all day. Un-joyful moments are just a fact of life. But what I can do is choose not to do or experience things that I don’t have to do that won’t bring joy. Procrastinating? Perhaps more fun at the time than working, doing laundry, or whatever I’m putting off, but the post-procrastination guilt and the overhanging reminder of the not-done stuff does not spark joy. Avoiding situations that make me anxious, like giving papers? There’s instant gratification in the relief of not having to do it, but much as with procrastination, not doing it would definitely not spark joy after the fact. Again, I’d feel guilty, and disappointed in myself. What I think is key here is finding what sparks joy not in a fleeting moment, or even at the time, but what will be an achievement that will continue to spark joy for some time to come after the thing itself.

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Big stacks of articles and books that I have to read sometimes bring more dread than joy

I’ve found that I can apply the same principle to my research. Does it always bring me joy? I wish I could say yes, but no, it doesn’t all the time – I’m only human. Do I sometimes need to research topics or read texts that don’t make me happy? Yes, that’s just a fact of research, as much as unjoyful moments are a fact of life – for every overarching topic that you love, there will always be one area that is a necessary evil. Or even when you’re researching your favourite topic, I can guarantee that at least once a week you’ll sit and stare despairingly at the pile of books and articles that you have to read. But what does make it easier to keep going in the depths of what is sometimes very un-joyful research is knowing that ultimately, getting it done will spark joy. Looking at this achievement, the tangible object, a stack of paper that only exists because I wrote the words that fill that page? Joy!

So, though I still haven’t got rid of any books (I’m sorry but a bookcase full to the brim just makes me happy, Marie), I’ve found a way to adapt the principle to my life in other ways. Thinking about it, it makes perfect sense. Why would I not do something that would bring me lasting joy, or put off something that would in the future? I just hope that as I slog towards my thesis deadline, I can continue to imagine that ultimate joyful moment, the huge culmination of all the smaller joyful moments of finishing chapters – handing in the final product. While it is hard, I can remind myself that the ultimate goal of finishing my PhD will spark the greatest joy imaginable.

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with Lizzie via email at egm9@st-andrews.ac.uk or connect with the blog on Twitter

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