Creating Joy, McConaughey-Style

Whenever motivational speeches pop up as suggestions on YouTube, I cringe a little. They usually strike me as hokey. If they come from a celebrity, they also strike me as bordering on cavalier: Yes, easy for you to go on about bootstrapping, never giving up, blah, blah, blah from your Hollywood mansion with your multimillion-dollar bank account. Yes, I know plenty of celebrities were not born with silver spoons in their mouths, but still. As the song goes, there’s a broken heart for every light on Broadway. Celebrities may work hard, but most of them were also lucky in that someone was willing to take a chance on them. There are a lot of talented people out there whose gifts will never be known to anyone but their family, friends, and local communities because they never caught a break.

So when Matthew McConaughey’s speech on happiness popped up, I was rather hesitant, not only because he’s a celebrity but because I am his polar opposite in terms of religion, hunting, and a few other issues. Regardless, I thought I would give it a shot. The worst that could happen (to my ex-Catholic, atheist thinking) is that it was a scripture reading. Or maybe it was a spoof and he would begin with “Ladies of Tampa,” the song he sang toward the end of Magic Mike, and I’d get a laugh out of it.

Wow, was I ever wrong, because it was none of that, at least in how it was put together by the video editor. McConaughey said so many things that made absolute sense to me. The overarching message is “to thine own self, be true,” but there were quite a few gems in the way he explained it.

Perhaps the easiest step, for me at least, was to define what you are not, or what you don’t want to be. His thought is that this is the first step to finding out who you are. I always find it easier to determine the no than the yes. For example, when I was dating, I knew what I didn’t want in a partner much more readily than what I did want: No one who wanted kids, no one religious, no hunters, no smokers of any kind, and no one who voted for George Bush. The hard part was figuring out what I did want, but at least that narrowed the field.

Another step is to define what success is to you. That’s the stuff of a million motivational speeches, but he hammered home an important point: You need to do maintenance on the areas of your life where you want to be successful. Want to be a great parent? Work on your parenting skills. Want to be healthy? Tend to your body. Want to be financially secure? Work on your budget and financial strategies. Do it daily because relationships and aspirations are like a garden, and if you don’t give them some attention every day, they’ll wither and die.

Then he gets to the kicker, the thing that stuck with me most. Once you know what you are not, and once you know your definition of success and what’s most important to you, don’t spend time with anything that antagonizes your character. If your friends are not healthy influences and they don’t bring out the best in you, step away from them. If eating fast food ultimately leaves you feeling like garbage, don’t eat it. He says “just don’t go there,” but I will add that while it sounds simple, he doesn’t say anything about it being easy. I’m glad of that because it’s a very real challenge for people to disengage with negative influences. There are all kinds of complex reasons why folks continue to pal around with people who are negative influences on their lives, stay in relationships that are not good for them, continue to eat junk food, spend money they don’t need to spend, etc. BUT, the more you disengage from the negative, the more you end up focusing on people and things that are better for you. Then it gets easier and easier to focus on the good stuff.

A few weeks ago, I ditched Facebook. It was bringing out the worst in me, the random trolls all over the site were destroying my faith in humanity, and it was a time-suck. It was antagonizing my character. Getting back to disengagement not being easy, I had tried to get rid of it a few times over the last few years, but feared falling out of touch with people. This time, I took the attitude that I would tell people I was leaving, give them a few days to see the post and exchange phone numbers, WhatsApp, email addies, and so on, and then boom, delete. If people wanted to keep in touch with me, they had other means of doing so, and they would, and I had other means of keeping in touch with them, too. There were a few that I avoided reaching out to, and there are a few where I am leaving communication in their court because I felt the friendship growing lopsided in that I never heard from them unless they wanted something from me or I reached out to them, first.

Well, guess what? Since I got rid of Facebook I have had far better interactions with people in my social sphere. I know more about how they are doing, what’s going on in their lives, how their families are, or if they are facing any struggles, and vice versa. The interactions are more meaningful because we choose to interact. We put forth the effort to communicate, and not boil our existence down into status updates or let an algorithm determine what we learn of each other. By getting rid of something that antagonized my character, I’ve been able to spend more time on healthier interactions that enhance it and promote its growth.

I have also put more time into thinking about what I am not, what I don’t want to be, what is important to me, and how I define success. I know more about the direction I want to take. I also know that it will be no easy process because it’s going to require rearranging big parts of my life and making a few sacrifices. But one thing is true: I’m not as joyful as I could be (and have been in the past), and if I don’t do something about it, that won’t change.

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