Opinion | When the World Feels Dark, Seek Out Delight

Here’s an idea for the new year: Let’s make 2024 the year of delight.

Does that sound ridiculous, given the state of the world right now? Hear me out.

The basic premise of a delight practice (which I learned about in the essay collection “The Book of Delights” by Ross Gay) is simple: You make a point to notice things in your everyday life that delight you. This could be anything — a pretty flower, a smile you share with a stranger, the sight of a person playing a trumpet while riding a unicycle down a major Philadelphia thoroughfare (true story). Nothing is too small or absurd. Then whenever you notice something that delights you, you lift your arm, raise your index finger in the air and say, out loud and with enthusiasm, “Delight!” (Yes, even if you’re alone.) Ideally, you share your delights with another person.

The concept of prioritizing delight may sound silly or almost irresponsible, given the heaviness of current events, feelings of burnout and the upcoming U.S. presidential election, in which it seems democracy itself could be at stake. But this is exactly why it is so important. Far from being a frivolous practice, making a point to notice and share things we find delightful can improve our moods, outlooks, relationships and even physical health.

How? Noticing delights requires us to pay attention, something that is required for our happiness and satisfaction but can be difficult in our increasingly distracted world. Essentially, this is a form of a gratitude practice — i.e., cultivating the habit of noticing and appreciating the things for which you’re thankful.

Gratitude practices are popular for good reason; if you make one a habit, the associated mental and physical benefits include reduced symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress and (probably relatedly) improved biomarkers for heart health.

But if you keep up a gratitude practice long enough, you may find yourself expressing your appreciation for the same things over and over, almost out of a sense of obligation. You are grateful for your friends and family. You are grateful that you have enough food. You are grateful for having a place to live. Eventually, the practice can begin to feel less nourishing and more like a chore.

In contrast, a delight practice taps into the deep power of gratitude without the risk of becoming trite. That’s because the things that delight us are often novel — I doubt I’ll see another trumpeting unicyclist any time soon.

Noticing and sharing delight is also a form of what psychologists call savoring, the practice of deliberately appreciating positive life experiences. Savoring has been shown to boost people’s moods as well as counterbalance our brains’ natural tendency to focus on the things that stoke anxiety and fear. (Being attuned to potentially threatening stressors is helpful from an evolutionary perspective; it takes work to focus our brains on the positive.)

What’s more, the effects of savoring are stronger if you make a point not just to notice positive things but also to label them and share them. (This is why it’s important to say “Delight!” out loud and put a finger in the air, even if it at first feels silly.)

And that’s perhaps my favorite part of the practice: sharing delights with other people. Start a meeting or a class by inviting people to share one thing that delighted them that day. Use delight sharing as an icebreaker or as a ritual before family meals. I have multiple delight group chats, and every new message boosts my mood, makes me feel more connected to others and inspires me to notice and share more delights.

For example, a friend once sent me a photo of frost crystals on his windshield with the caption “Delight!” Not only did this make me feel closer to him, but it also made me resolve to try to find delight in situations (such as having to scrape frost off my car) that might otherwise be annoying.

These moments of connection are good for our physical health. As Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s recent advisory about the nation’s loneliness epidemic noted, a lack of social ties is associated with increased risks for high blood pressure, heart disease, cognitive impairment, depression, anxiety, Type 2 diabetes and susceptibility to infectious disease. In fact, one well-regarded meta-analysis concluded that the health risks of loneliness and isolation are comparable with those of smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day.

It makes me wonder: What might happen if we, as individuals and as communities, committed to a delight practice? How would it affect our happiness and health? And what might it do to the country’s political climate if we paid less attention to the things that divide us and more to the things that spark delight? It’s possible to disagree with people, to acknowledge life’s challenges, to debate, to sit with sadness, grief and fear while marveling at and seeking out simple joys.

You may be amazed by how much there is to marvel at. As Mr. Gay writes, “It didn’t take me long to learn that the discipline or practice of writing these essays occasioned a kind of delight radar. Or maybe it was more like the development of a delight muscle. Something that implies that the more you study delight, the more delight there is to study.”

This year, like all of them, will be filled with conflict and tragedy. But it will also be filled with delights. Resolve to notice them.

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