Seeing the good in the good-for-you

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There’s something in modern culture that would have us believe that good, clean fun is an oxymoron.  If it’s delicious it probably has too many calories.  If it’s healthy for the body it’s either boring or it hurts, or both.  We entertain ourselves with junk food and junk activities.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Enjoying ourselves depends on us, not what we’re doing.

I recently finished a month-long challenge to advance a couple of projects, some renovations and some book editing.  It’s now been nearly a month and a half, and I’m still working on both projects every day.  Why?  Because of the buzz I get from accomplishment.  Now that I don’t “have to” write every day, now that I don’t “have to” work on the renovations, they’ve turned into pleasant routines that only take a small bite out of my spare time.

And this is the key.  Rather than obligation, now I have desire.   I want to work on these projects now.  It didn’t start out that way.  It just kind of sneaked up on me.  Part of it is the sense of relief I get when the project tasks are done for the day.  I can do something else and not feel a vague sense of guilt, because things are a bit further ahead than they were the day before.

By working regularly on something you also tend to get better at doing it.  This reduces one major stressor, the anxiety and uncertainty that happens when you’re not sure how to do something.

What’s happening here, I think, is that with repetition we cultivate our own desires and start enjoying the most extraordinary things.  This afternoon, for instance, I was fussing with a board that couldn’t be removed because some of the screws that were holding it down had stripped heads.  I had to drill out the bad screws one by one, but at last the board came free.  I felt like a superhero.

Another aspect of enjoyment is the flow concept first described by Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi.  When I’m at work, the length of the work day seems to be inversely proportional to how much mindfulness I bring to my tasks.  The deeper I go into the work, the quicker the day goes by and the more satisfaction I feel.

I’m still struggling with applying these principles to things like fitness, a good idea that unfortunately isn’t a daily habit yet.  Perhaps the next time there’s a month-long challenge, I’ll put together a handful of exercises and spend a few weeks getting gradually better at them, until the “Hey, this is fun!” switch clicks into the “on” position.


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