The Opposite Of Joy—Walking Out On Baryshnikov

by Doc Orman, M.D.


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This week, I am going to discuss a few points about joy and happiness.  What causes us to feel joyous or happy?  Where do these positive emotions come from, and what can we do to have more of them?

Let’s start off by examining an example of the opposite of joy and happiness—lack of joy and profound unhappiness.  Let me share a personal example with you from my own life.

I Hate Ballet

There are few things in life that I dislike more than going to a ballet.  For most of my life, I successfully avoided going to the ballet, because there was nothing about it I thought I could possibly enjoy. 

I could personally relate to many other types of dancing, but not to ballet.  I could relate to ballroom dancing, hip-hop dancing, African dancing, and many other types of dancing.  But ballet dancing held nothing at all of interest for me.

I Even Walked Out On Baryshnikov

Then, many years ago, I got an invitation to go to a ballet that I couldn’t turn down.  My girlfriend at the time found out that Baryshnikov was performing in Washington, D.C., and she insisted that we go together, since this was such a rare opportunity to see a phenomenal performer.  I tried to explain that I detested ballet, but she insisted nonetheless.

So off we went for the one-hour drive to the Kennedy Center in D.C. and soon thereafter, we were at the ballet and the first act of a scheduled three-act performance had begun.  I was absolutely miserable from the moment the performance started, hating every single minute of it like it was painful torture.  My lack of joy and surging unhappiness reached such a peak midway through the second act, that I feigned a stomach ailment and told my girlfriend that we would have to leave.  I walked out on Baryshnikov and felt very relieved to have done so.

From Hatred To Enjoyment

Then, about five years later, I had another invitation to go to the ballet that I similarly could not decline.  This time, I was dating another woman.  It was early on in the relationship and she really, really wanted to go see Swan Lake, which was playing at our local theater.

Once again, I reluctantly agreed to go, fully expecting to detest every single minute until it was finally over.  So there I was again, sitting in my center-section seat, finding nothing at all of interest for the first 30 minutes of the program.  I seriously considered pretending to be sick again, but I didn’t want to repeat this pattern.  So I decided to stay to the bitter end, no matter how bad it got.

But this time, something very interesting and unexpected happened.  Once I realized I was stuck and wasn’t going anywhere, I relaxed and my mind started to wander a bit. I found myself ignoring the dancing and focusing on the expert craftsmanship that went into designing and building the background sets.  I had not paid any attention to this aspect of the ballet before, but once I did, I was very impressed with the high quality of both the workmanship and artistry.

Dance Like A Butterfly, Float Like A Bee

Then, I started to look at the dancers in a new and different way.  I had taken up long distance running at the time, and I had personally experienced many moments of feeling like I was “floating” down a road, with my feet ever-so-lightly touching the pavement below.  I started to notice how the ballet dancers seemed to effortlessly jump into the air and land on their toes as if their bodies were no heavier than a feather.

Sometime later, I also began to notice how precise and delicately the dancers moved and positioned their arms.  I was able to personally relate to this aspect of the dancing because it reminded me of my own experience of training myself to gain more in-the-moment body awareness, when I was running on various terrains.

And as I was finding more and more positive things about the ballet to enjoy, I also noticed that the music of Swan Lake was pretty enjoyable as well, once my mind was no longer preoccupied with hating all aspects of the dancing.

What Does This Example Reveal?

So, what does this example tell us about the nature of joy and happiness?  If I could go from absolutely detesting the ballet, for most of my life, to suddenly finding myself enjoying it—just by shifting my focus—what does this tell us about where enjoyment really comes from?   Does either hating or enjoying the ballet come from ballet dancing itself, or does it have more to do with the way we mentally and emotionally choose to relate to the ballet?

I think it’s the latter, and I think this also has great implications for how much joy and happiness—or stress— we end up experiencing in our lives.

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