Simple Life Habits & Cultivating Joy | Motivational Podcasts

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Today’s podcast was edited and adapted from The Simple Life by Charles Wagner, published in 1901.

DO you find life enjoyable these days? For my part, on the whole, it seems rather depressing, and I fear that my opinion is not altogether personal. As I observe the lives of my contemporaries, and listen to their talk, I find myself unhappily confirmed of the opinion that they do not get much pleasure out of things. And certainly it is not from lack of trying; but it must be acknowledged that their success is meager.

Where can the fault be? Some accuse politics or business; others social problems or terrorism. From morning till night, wherever we go, the people we meet are hurried, worried, preoccupied. Some have ruined their health in the miserable conflicts of petty politics: others are disheartened by the meanness and jealousy they have encountered in the world of art and science. Business competition troubles the sleep of not a few.

The crowded curricula of study and the exigencies of new careers spoil life for many young individuals. The working classes suffer the consequences of ceaseless industrial automation. It is becoming disagreeable to govern, because authority is diminishing; to teach, because respect is vanishing. Wherever one turns there is matter for discontent.

And yet history shows us certain epochs of upheaval which were as lacking in idyllic tranquility as our own, but which the gravest events did not prevent from being joyful. It even seems as if the seriousness of affairs, the uncertainty of tomorrow, the violence of social convulsions, sometimes became a new source of vitality.

I think myself nowise mistaken in saying that human joy has celebrated its finest triumphs under the greatest tests of endurance. But to sleep peacefully on the eve of battle or to exult at the arduous climb, people had then the stimulus of an internal harmony which we perhaps lack.

Joy is not in THINGS, it is in US, and I hold to the belief that the causes of our present unrest (of this contagious discontent spreading everywhere) are within us at least as much as in external conditions.

To give one’s self up heartily to diversion, one must feel themselves on solid ground, must believe in life and find it within them. And we must not confound pleasure with the instruments of pleasure. To be a painter, does it suffice to arm one’s self with a brush? Or does the purchase at great cost of a Stradivarius make one a musician? No more, if you had the whole paraphernalia of amusement in its perfection, would it advance you upon the road to happiness. But with a bit of crayon a great artist makes an immortal sketch.

You need talent or genius to paint; and to enjoy one’s self, the faculty of being happy: whoever possesses it is entertained at slight cost. This joyful faculty is destroyed by skepticism, artificial living, over-abuse. It is fostered by confidence, moderation, and normal habits of thought and action.

An excellent proof of my argument (and one very easily encountered) lies in the fact that wherever life is simple and sane, true pleasure accompanies it as fragrance does uncultivated flowers. Even when this life hard, hampered, devoid of all things ordinarily considered as the very conditions of pleasure, the rare and delicate plant, joy, flourishes there. It springs up between the flags of the pavement, on an arid wall, in the fissure of a rock. We ask ourselves how it comes, and whence: but it lives.

No one seems to doubt the immense human interest attached to joy. It is a sacred flame that must be fed, and it throws a splendid radiance over life. The individual who takes pains to foster it accomplishes a work as profitable for humanity as those who build bridges, pierce tunnels, invent technology, or cultivate the ground.

To order one’s life so as to keep (amid toils and suffering) the faculty of happiness, and be able to propagate it in a sort of salutary contagion among one’s fellow citizens, is to do a work of fraternity in the noblest sense. To give a simple pleasure, smooth an anxious brow, bring a little light into dark paths, is truly a divine office in the midst of this poor humanity. But it is only in great simplicity of heart that one succeeds in fulfilling it.

We are not simple enough to be happy and to render others so. We lack the singleness of heart and the self-forgetfulness. We spread joy, as we do consolation, by such methods as to produce negative results. To console a person, what do we do? We set to work to dispute their suffering, persuade them that they are mistaken in thinking themselves unhappy.

In reality, our language translated into truthful speech would amount to this: “You suffer, my friend? That is strange; you must be mistaken, for I feel nothing.” As the only human means of soothing grief is to share it in the heart, how must a sufferer feel, consoled in this fashion?

To divert our neighbor, to make them pass an agreeable hour, we set out in the same way. We invite them to admire our versatility, to laugh at our wit, to frequent our house, to sit at our table. Through it all, our desire to shine breaks forth.

To give pleasure to others and take it ourselves, we have to begin by removing the ego, which is self-centered, and then keep it in chains as long as the diversions last. There is no worse kill-joy than the ego. We must be like good children, sweet and kind, button our coats over our medals and titles, and with our whole heart put ourselves at the disposal of others.

Let us sometimes live (be it only for an hour and though we must lay all else aside) to make others smile. The sacrifice is only in appearance. No one finds more pleasure for themselves than they who know how (without ostentation) to give of themselves, so that they may procure for those around them a moment of forgetfulness and happiness.

When shall we be so simply and truly men and women, so as not to hoist our personal business and distresses upon the people we meet socially? May we not forget for an hour our pretensions, our strife, and become as children once more, to laugh again that good laugh which does so much to make the world better?

We think ourselves warranted in believing that the infirm, the afflicted, the bankrupt, the vanquished in life’s battle, and all those who carry heavy burdens, are in the shade, like the northern slopes of mountains. And that it is so of necessity. We believe there would be a lack of delicacy in breaking the thread of their sad meditations—that we should approach them in a serious frame of mind, and talk to them only of serious things. So, too, when we visit the sick or unfortunate, we think we should leave our smiles at the door, compose our face and manner to dolefulness, and not talk of anything joyful.

Thus we carry darkness to those in darkness, shade to those in shade. We increase the isolation of solitary lives and the monotony of the dull and sad. We wall up some lives as it were in dungeons; and because the grass grows round their deserted prison-house, we speak low in approaching it, as though it were a tomb. Though unintentional, it is cruel, and ought not to be.

When you find men or women whose lives are lost in hard work (such as nurses, policeman, and social workers), or people in engaged in some painful task, remember that they are beings made like you, that they have the same wants, that there are hours when they need pleasure and diversion.

You will not turn them aside from their mission by making them laugh occasionally: these people who see so many tears and griefs. On the contrary, you will give them strength to go on the better with their work.

When people whom you know are undergoing some trial or tribulation, do not draw a sanitary cordon round them (as though they had the plague) that you cross only with precautions which recall to them their sad lot. On the contrary, after showing all your sympathy (all your respect for their grief) comfort them, help them to take up life again; carry them a vital breath from the out-of-doors–something in short to remind them that their misfortune does not shut them off from the world.

And so extend your sympathy to those whose work quite absorbs them, who are, so to put it, tied down. The world is full of men and women who sacrifice themselves for others, who never have either rest or pleasure, and to whom the least relaxation, the slightest respite, is a priceless good. And this minimum of comfort could be so easily found for them if only we thought of it.

Let us rid ourselves of this criminal blindness which prevents us from seeing the exhaustion of those who are always in the current. Relieve the guards perishing at their posts, give Sisyphus an hour to breathe; take for a moment the place of the parent (tied to the cares of their house and children); sacrifice an hour of your sleep for someone worn by long vigils with the sick.

You will at once make others happy and be happy yourself. We go unconcernedly along beside our brothers and sisters who are bent under burdens we might take upon ourselves for a minute. And this short respite would suffice to soothe aches, revive the flame of joy in many a heart, and open up a wide place for camaraderie.

How much better would we understand another if we knew how to put ourselves heartily in that other’s place, and how much more pleasure there would be in life.

I wish to say one more thing that cannot be too often repeated: If you wish our children to be moral, do not neglect their enjoyments, or leave to chance the task of providing them these pleasures. You will perhaps say that young people do not like to have their amusements submitted to regulations, and that besides, in our day and age, they are already over-spoiled and divert themselves only too much.

I would reply that one may suggest ideas, indicate directions, offer opportunities for amusement, without making any regulations whatever. In the second place, I believe that you deceive yourselves in thinking youth has too much entertainment.

Aside from amusements that are artificial, enervating, and immoral (that blight life instead of making it bloom in splendor) there are very few left today. One can hardly stir without encountering something that resembles unhealthy pleasures. Among young people of today, the dearth of healthy amusements causes real suffering.

We must come to their aid. Our children are heirs of a joyless world. We bequeath them cares, hard questions, a life heavy with shackles and complexities. Let us at least make an effort to brighten the morning of their days.

Let us interest ourselves in their sports, find them pleasure-grounds to explore and roam. Let us multiply anniversaries, family parties, and excursions. Let us raise good humor in our homes to the height of an institution.

Let the schools, too, do their part. It will be so much the better for serious work. There is no such aid to understanding one’s teacher as to have laughed in their company. And conversely, to be well understood, a pupil must be met elsewhere than in class or examination.

And all of this need not cost an extra dime. Pleasure, like all other truly precious things in this world, cannot be bought or sold. If you wish to have fun, you must do your part toward it; that is the essential. There is no prohibition against opening your wallet, if you can do it, and find it desirable. But I assure you it is not indispensable.

Pleasure and simplicity are two old acquaintances. Entertain simply, meet your friends simply. Do good work; be as amiable and genuine as possible toward your companions; speak no evil of the absent, and your success is assured.

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