Feeling burnt out? Here’s how joy could make all the difference
Whether you want to prevent burnout or recover from it, resilience is essential – but did you know joy could be the secret to building it?
In the summer of 2020, I burnt out. I was running a side business alongside my job here at Happiful and, compounded by pandemic stress, it all got too much. I pressed pause on my business, and used the extra time to prioritise rest and joy. I slept in, started drawing, read more fiction, and watched films that inspired me. I filled my cup and, in time, I found my way back to me.
But the me I found was different. I had a new perspective, and realised how important joy was in having a fulfilled life and, ever since, I’ve been making decisions that prioritise cultivating joy. Now, this wasn’t a truly conscious decision at the time. I was simply exhausted and needed a break. But I’ve now learnt that joy may actually be what we all need to help build resilience, and overcome burnout.
To really get to grips with this concept then, it’s best to start with the basics and ask: what exactly is burnout?
“Burnout is a state of physical and mental exhaustion brought on by excessive and prolonged periods of unmanaged stress,” explains positive psychology practitioner and joy coach Sophie Cliff.
“The World Health Organisation categorises burnout as having three distinct symptoms – depleted energy and exhaustion (always feeling tired, no matter how much you rest), feelings of negativity and cynicism (struggling to find the silver linings, or feeling like nothing you do will make a difference), and reduced performance (struggling to achieve at the same level as you might have done in the past).”
Sound familiar? While the World Health Organisation typically sees burnout as purely work-related, many of us now recognise that burnout can be caused by a range of issues, from parental burnout to autistic burnout.
A common thread through all types of burnout is the way it makes us feel: exhausted, frozen, and unsure of how to keep going. Something that can help us move forward is that oh-so-elusive resilience. Often viewed as our ability to ‘bounce back’, resilience isn’t about ignoring what’s happening and simply pushing through. It’s about giving space to your feelings, acknowledging them, and doing what you need to feel better.
“Resilience can take different forms,” Sophie says. “For some people, it will look like bouncing back to old routines quickly following adversity, while for others it might be having the ability to start over and adapt to a new normal following a period of stress.”
Interestingly, Sophie notes that joy can help us cultivate resilience in a number of ways.
“Firstly, research shows that experiencing and focusing on little moments of joy helps our bodies recover from the physiological effects of stress. Joy can also give our lives a sense of meaning and purpose, which, in turn, boosts our capacity to deal with challenges and bounce back from adversity.”
The fact that joy can give our lives a sense of meaning is something I can attest to. When I burned out, I felt lost and unanchored. And when I focused on doing things that made me happy, including starting a brand new hobby (drawing), I broadened my vision of what it means to live a fulfilled life. I took some of the gargantuan pressure and focus I’d put on my work life, and divvied it into my life outside of work.
As Sophie explains, broadening your thinking is a key part of joy and positive emotion, helping us manage stress.
“This is best understood using the broaden-and-build theory. According to social psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, while negative emotions can prompt us to employ narrow, survival-oriented behaviours (such as engaging the fight/flight/freeze response), positive thoughts and emotions broaden our awareness, and encourage new thoughts and actions.
“Her broaden-and-build theory explains how, when we experience positive emotions such as joy, we broaden our thinking,” Sophie says. “This allows us to draw on a range of possible solutions and behaviours, therefore, building a whole host of mental resources (including resilience) that help us to live enhanced, healthier, and more fulfilling lives.”
Apparently, we also experience this as a positive upwards spiral – which means the more we experience positive emotions, the greater the benefits.
This is all well and good, but the idea of embracing joy when you’re burnt out (or close to burnout) can feel incomprehensible, and it’s important to recognise that it isn’t a feeling we can just ‘switch on’. Allowing what are often perceived as ‘negative’ feelings to be there is important, and this isn’t about smothering them with rainbows and fake smiles. It’s about honouring those feelings, and looking for glimmers of light to pave a way forward.
So, how can we do this?
“One of the simplest ways we can start to prioritise joy is by practising gratitude,” Sophie says. “Research tells us that being thankful for what we have is a prerequisite for experiencing joy, and it can also help us to avoid comparison and feel more present.
“Connection is another well-researched strategy – humans are wired for sociability, so spending quality time with loved ones, and fostering connections within our community can help to cultivate joy.”
Practising gratitude can be as simple as noting down one thing you’re grateful for every day, or taking a moment to really relish in a much-loved routine. You could even combine this with social connection. Why not start a gratitude WhatsApp group with your friends so you can prompt each other?
Finally, we know that joy can feel like a big emotion to capture, but Sophie reminds us that it can be small, too.
“Remember that joy isn’t reserved for the big moments, or for when our lives feel perfect. Often, joy is there in the small moments that we overlook – the first cup of coffee of the day, a beautiful sky, a cuddle with a pet. By appreciating and being more present for those moments, we can experience more joy in even the most average day.”
So yes, burnout can leave us in a dark place… but being present for moments of joy could just give us the spark we need to reignite our fires.
Sophie Cliff’s book, ‘Choose Joy’, is out now, and looks at the ways joy can help us prevent burnout while offering practical exercises to prioritise joy. Learn more at sophiecliff.com.