The importance of planning for everyday joy

by Carolyn Thomas      @HeartSisters

When my mother was already showing early signs of her vascular dementia and had to move into an assisted-living apartment, she hated it. The staff reminded our family that “having something to look forward to” every day would help her feel more settled. They were so right. The move had been scary and overwhelming for Mom, but even knowing that after lunch she’d be playing cribbage or watching a favourite movie could bring a smile to her face.

We didn’t call it this at the time, but what Mom was doing, in the middle of all of her angst and fear, was planning joy.   

Being diagnosed with a scary and overwhelming chronic illness can also be compared to a forced move to a new place. As the late patient activist Dr. Jessie Gruman once described this move:

” I don’t know the language, the culture is unfamiliar, I have no idea what is expected of me, I have no map and I desperately want to find my way home.”

No wonder we feel so scared and overwhelmed! In the early post-hospital-discharge days, many of us can’t even imagine that we’ll feel joyful ever again.

In his 1848 book called “The Sphere and Duties of Woman: A Course of Lectures” , George Washington Burnap wrote:

  The grand essentials to happiness in this life are something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.”

 (I can only imagine, by the way, the other lessons that women of the 1840s were learning from a book with this title while being “lectured” to by a 46-year old white Unitarian clergyman).

But Burnap’s specific lesson on the “grand essentials” – especially “something to hope for” – remains a wise one.

Particularly for the freshly-diagnosed heart patient, the sense that life as we once knew it is somehow now over can feel as scary and as overwhelming as my own mother felt when she was told she’d have to move out of the home she loved.

As Calgary heart patient Cynthia Culhane said in her interview for the documentary film, “A Typical Heart“:

  “After the initial shock of my heart attack, everybody’s life went back to normal again – except me.”

The good news: this “newness” does indeed tend to wear off over time.  Slowly, gradually, heart patients learn to feel less fear and more confidence, less weakness and more strength, less grief and more ability to imagine a life in the future. But this can take time – and a plan.

The plan takes deliberation. We can’t lie around all day waiting for life to automatically snap back to “normal” one fine day all by itself.   

And this, by the way, is yet another reason that registering for a cardiac rehabilitation program as soon as possible after a cardiac event is so valuable, especially for women. Cardiac rehab has been shown to improve both physical and psychological health for heart patients – even lowering our risks of another cardiac event in the future! – no matter what kind of heart condition we live with. It helps to “normalize” what‘s just happened. And there’s lots to look forward to each week in attending cardiac rehab classes!

I recall in my early post-heart attack days feeling so debilitated that simply walking to the corner and back was the highlight of my entire day. But I had to force myself out the door, often leaning heavily on my son Ben’s arm the whole way, while silently wailing, “What has HAPPENED to me?!”

When every fibre of your being wants to crawl back under the covers, deliberately planning how to build in some basic joy every day can be critically important.

But there’s another good reason that planning for joy can help heart patients. For Alaska cardiac psychologist Dr. Stephen Parker (and most importantly, a heart patient himself), a symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that rang true for him after his own cardiac event was a sense of a foreshortened future“.

In other words, after a traumatic event – in this case, his serious heart attack – Dr. Steve subconsciously no longer expected to have a normal lifespan.  And if he no longer expected to ever see a “normal” life again, it meant  he had nothing to look forward to. For example, he once described a routine shopping trip to his local Home Depot store, where he quickly lost interest – because he knew he wouldn’t be alive much longer to finish doing any projects around the house.

So why bother even starting?

When I felt like that, too, my own plans – no matter how small – had to be written on my calendar so I could psyche myself up in advance:

“Go for a walk by the beach – 10 a.m.”

Lately, I’ve been reading and re-reading Toni Bernhard’s “Turning Straw Into Gold” columns in Psychology Today about her own experience living with chronic illness. Her recent essay is an example of the wisdom of learning to plan joy every day. Here’s her advice:

“Each evening, write down something enjoyable you intend to do the next day.

“This little exercise can be a challenge because many of us look after our own happiness last. Try it though.

“Each evening, write down something fun or fulfilling that you plan to do the next day. Putting it in writing makes it part of your agenda for the day to come, which increases the likelihood that you’ll follow-through on it.

“Of course, sometimes it’s wise to change your plans after you get up the next day. If this happens and you’re not able to get to the activity on the day you planned, let it go. No blame!

“But, that evening, don’t forget to write down something enjoyable you plan to do the next day.”

I’m not sure when it happened for me, but one day I too must have decided that I needed to start deliberately doing more of the things that I love doing and far less of the things I don’t.

My own joy plan has recently included writing about my newest obsession: growing trouble-free long-blooming roses in pots out on my balcony! You can follow along on this adventure at “The Novice Rose Gardener”.  And other joy plans for today include a walk in the sunshine along the ocean.

What about you?

Q: What kind of activities are on YOUR Joy Planning list for today?”

NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote much more about adjusting to becoming a patient in my book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease” . You can ask for it at your local library or favourite bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from Johns Hopkins University Press (and use the code HTWN to save 30% off the list price when you order).

See also:

Listen up, ladies: 16 things I’ve been meaning to tell you

The New Country Called Heart Disease”

“Welcome to Holland!”

Are You Too Hard On Yourself?

Depressing News about Depression and Heart Disease

Not Just For Soldiers Anymore: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder After A Heart Attack

Top 10 Tips From the Author of ‘How to be Sick’

Three things that make you happy – and three things that won’t

Design a beautiful day today

Good news: your story is not yet locked in

16 thoughts on “The importance of planning for everyday joy

  1. It seems to me that finding joy in large part means living in the moment. Enjoying where you are and what you are doing at that time, not worrying about the future or stressing over things in the past that you can’t change. Being thankful for this moment and counting the good things in life. I’m learning this in part from my sweet dog Carly who definitely lives in the moment every day! If only I could have as much joy just going for a walk or to the dog park as she does — but I just don’t love exercise that much! LOL

    I would recommend 2 excellent books by the Christian author Mike Mason, “Champagne for the Soul: Rediscovering God’s Gift of Joy” and “Practicing the Presence of People: How We Learn to Love.” Joy is such an elusive thing in our culture nowadays and I struggle with depression but these books have helped me a lot; I love the way this man thinks. I know not everyone embraces Christian theology but the Bible has a lot to say about joy, including that complete joy will be the ultimate destiny for the believer. And I think that we can find a lot more joy here on earth if we just look for it — it’s right in front of our faces every day but it gets crowded out by other things and we just miss it!

    Recently I began working one-on-one with a developmentally disabled woman, taking her out into the community once a week. At 51, she has been institutionalized most of her life and now lives in a group home. From our first time out I began “practicing the presence” of this woman and I’ve learned so much from her about finding joy in the moment.

    Her world is very small and my job is to enlarge it a bit each week. We go shopping or out for lunch or sit in a cafe and play dominoes (over and over again, sometimes for an hour — double sixes — it’s like a puzzle to her more than a game and we never keep track of winning or losing).

    She has so much joy, just laughing and getting very excited over playing all the dominoes or eating a burrito at Taco Bell or enjoying her favorite diet Dr Pepper or just hanging out with a friend (“Are you coming next Wednesday?”).

    Such simple pleasures that we take for granted — I so need to take more joy in these things. Joy is so good for the heart, physical as well as emotional.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Meghan, I love that story of you “practicing the presence” of your new friend. Just being with somebody who is so in the moment (your dog: another excellent example!) makes joy contagious.

      I’ve learned that spending time with my adorable 4-year old granddaughter Everly Rose has that instant effect on me. No matter how bad my symptoms on any given day, they seem to fade the minute I see her rushing up to me with a big welcoming hug. Our morning walks to daycare are filled with joyful discoveries like acorns, autumn leaves, leaping squirrels – or the #11 bus (her “favourite” bus – she stops and waves enthusiastically to the driver each day, just thrilled because he waves back!)

      You’re right – the joy is right in front of us if we look for it…


  2. Hi Carolyn. I still vividly recall crying in the parking lot of Home Depot fifteen years ago. Apparently my unconscious didn’t know what it was talking about.

    It is still not convinced. Anytime I get severe arrhythmias, it starts the countdown clock again.. The End is Near… The burning issue has become how to live in the face of imminent mortality… Imminent apparently is not as imminent as imminent feels…

    I am not sure about planning for joy though; it feels to me that planning for joy is creating problematic expectations given the fragility of the body and mental states. Scheduling a walk seems like a good idea though, since it would give the opportunity for joy….. And I do find myself catching moments of joy….

    I think these moments are a lot like birds…. In fact, seeing the birds themselves brings joy…. And, as a side note, it gives me joy not to plan to go to Home Depot, where they don’t have birds.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How nice to hear from you, Dr. Steve! You have no idea how many times I repeat your Home Depot story about foreshortened futures! It’s so helpful to heart patients to hear/read about your experience, knowing that they are not alone in this conviction that death is imminent, as you say.

      When I went through that same conviction (mine was that I’d likely die overnight), my matter-of-fact reaction was to tidy the entire apartment before bedtime each evening so that the paramedics or (worse!) my grown children would find my corpse in a nice clean place the next morning… After several months (yes MONTHS!) of this exhausting response, it struck me that I seemed to be still alive, despite my “knowing” that death was imminent. Just not as “imminent” as I anticipated either…

      I would have guessed, based on what I know about what you’ve created with your stones, that this project must have required lots of ‘planning for joy’ – months and months worth!

      Thanks for making me laugh right out loud at imagining a bird-free Home Depot!


      1. Carolyn: Your conviction of cleaning before imminent death is reminiscent of “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” Apparently it worked and you are still alive?

        It also reminds me of Ann Landers advice to always wear clean underwear in case you are in an accident or need to go to the emergency room. It is so important to make other people feel comfortable when you are dying.

        I saw a meme about someone saying to a hospice patient, “What does it feel like to know that you are dying?” and the response was, “What does it feel like to deny that you are not?”

        Meanwhile, there are birds out there singing and I best be off the computer. Thanks for all the work you do and your responses.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. My Mum subscribed to that same Ann Landers advice, which was drilled into her five kids. I don’t know if cleanliness is next to godliness, but I do know that for a few months, my apartment had never looked so spiffy….

          Love that hospice quote. Which I plan to steal and call my own… 😉

          Liked by 1 person

    1. Make our joys, plan for joy! Yes, Mahjo! I love Toni Bernhard’s writing. A former law professor, her story is a compelling one. 18 years ago, she went to Paris with her hubby to celebrate their anniversary. She got very sick – and never got better! Essentially bedridden ever since. A beautiful writer…


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