JOY is Something You Deserve to Claim: How to Experience Deep Joy, No Matter Your Painful Circumstances || with Dr. Tanmeet SethiAug 13, 2023
Happiness and joy are NOT the same. Dr. Tanmeet Sethi wants you to not only understand the differences, but to live them out by claiming JOY for yourself, no matter what your circumstances are, and no matter how unfair life has been for you—joy is your justice.
Dr. Tanmeet Sethi, MD, is a board-certified Integrative Family Medicine physician who has spent the last 25 years on the frontlines locally and globally practicing primary care and trauma work with the most marginalized communities. Tune in to understand the brain-body connection behind joy, learn what it can mean for your personally, and identify touchstones in your own life.
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Monica: Welcome to about progress.
Tanmeet: Oh, I'm so excited to be here, Monica. Thank you.
Monica: It's been a real pleasure to get to know you and your work online, so eager to get my hands on your new book. But we're here to talk about everything you've learned basically, not just in the writing of this book, but in your professional and your professional career, but also your personal life as well, and how the interplays with a topic that people care a lot about.
It's probably the most searched. Not probably, I read this summer official, and I should find this out where it was, but the most asked question on Google is about happiness. In other words, joy, like, how can I be happy? How do I get happier? Anything related to that, and this is such an important topic because it's just like this human need.
We all have to feel better, to feel happier, but joy, Is a little different and I'd actually love to start with your own definition of what joy is and how it's something all of us can claim regardless of, where we are in our lives and our past as well.
Tanmeet: Yeah, I love that we're starting here because I might have read that somewhere too.
I need to find that too. But happiness, being so searched makes sense, right? It's, we all want to feel better and do better, the thing that I really want listeners to understand is that I can't define joy for each person. It really is this river that flows within us, and it's very individual to each of us. At the same time, what I really can offer is a different framework between happiness and joy, because that's actually where I feel like we're doing a disservice and even a little harm in our mental health conversation.
So I find that I want people to know happiness and joy are both welcome all the time. I'm all for both of them. What I can't really reconcile for people is that happiness is presented interchangeably with joy, and I think that's not okay. Happiness is a cognitive construct. It's an evaluation of how our life is going.
It's attached to some outcome or something. Okay. Whereas Joy is actually a deeply embodied experience that comes from the same deep well as our capacity for love, for meaning, for connection. Our pain stems from all of those things, as does our joy. Our joy is actually something that no one gave to us. No one can take away and no one can make different.
It is in us innately. It is our human birthright, and when the cognitive constructs of our life are not happy for which many of us, that's the truth. It is not okay to not present a difference between happiness and joy because what I can tell you is that the cognitive constructs of my own life are not happy most days, but joy is accessible to me anytime.
And that's what I want people to understand, that it is very different, these two concepts. I'm gonna give you how that works for me, but I think when we go deeper into concepts, it'll even be more understandable for people. For me, even if the day is hard, even if life is not going the way I want, I can access joy in my body through movement, through breath.
I can take a walk in nature and feel awe. At the trees around me at the spring blooms, I can feel gratitude that even though I'm crying, I am awake to my life fully. I can feel self-compassion that I'm only human, and of course I hurt because I love, and so on the surface may seem like that just doesn't, that's not enough for me if things aren't going well, but what I explain in my book is how to look at these practices and understand them from neuroscience, from a more equity justice view that allows us to understand that these tools are not there because we should use them.
They are there because we deserve to use them. We deserve to reclaim power in our body. And the truth is that. Any kind of suffering we're experiencing or any system of oppression, we're living in work to gain more power by thriving when we do not by stripping us of our power and our humanity. So when I am feeling like I am powerless, hopeless, devoid of all those things that make me feel like I thrive.
I go back and reclaim power in my body, and then on a more tangible level, for some people, what I may offer is that, you know, how you can be at a funeral for someone you love and be so sad, deeply mourning, and in the next moment or the same moment through your tears, you can laugh with a family member or a friend about a way that person, I'm getting chills thinking about it a way that they gave you love, or made you laugh or irritated you, and laugh about that memory. That is what I mean. Joy springs from the same well as our pain. So I offer both of those ways of looking at it as practical entryways into our discussion.
Monica: Two parts of that make both a lot of sense to me and that are really astounding is that, that joy is about connection.
I'm like, yeah, of course. How we can feel that in spite of whatever circumstances we might be facing and as well as the body piece to it. So I wanna go both of those directions. Let's start with the body part, if that's okay, because that might be the new thing for people.
They're like, wait, so joy is an experience in my body. How does that work?
Tanmeet: Yeah. I love this question. If there's one thing I think that's been much better established in the last, I would say two or three decades, is the fact that trauma lives in our body, suffering lives in our body. And people like Bessel, Vander Cook and other experts have really helped us understand this through evidence, science and experience.
What I tell patients daily is that what your mind and heart cannot resolve, your body will hold onto, and that is true. At the same time, what I tell them is trauma is held in the body, but it. It is also where it heals. That is why going into your body is so important and this cognitive construct and belief that you can be happier or more joyful or have a better life is not to be dismissed.
I. Yet until we feel it in the fabric of our body, it is probably not to be harnessed as powerfully as we possibly can. Now, one thing I'll explain to people is that the nervous system does its best job of protecting us in a moment of loss, grief, or ongoing suffering or oppression. We are losing our sense of safety and ease in our body.
Our nervous system helps us by fighting, fleeing, or numbing to whatever is happening. It does that out of love and protection, but sometimes it goes on too long for us and we get into a place where we're either hypervigilant or numbed, dissociated. In that way that our nervous system works, we also must work to help it reset, to help our nervous system give us that connection back to ourselves and to the world around us.
And that is why it is so important to step into our body over and over to start that healing process.
Monica: I think that's really counter to a lot of advice out in the personal development world and because of the things I've done with therapy in the past that had changed my life. But initially, the advice you get to be happier, to feel more joy in your life is to work in your mindset.
And while thoughts do matter to me, cognitive therapy was a big part of my shift. It was also a body part that you're bringing up here that I didn't have that gap filled for many years. It took a lot longer. So how can we bridge the gap between this constant like flood of advice to work on your thoughts and to believe that you can change and the mindset piece of it, and also this really important body piece.
Tanmeet: Yeah. I would say, yeah, not to let go of the mindset piece. The only harm I feel in the mindset piece is that in what I feel is a whitewashed wellness approach, is that we are told to think ourselves out of suffering. Yes. And oppression. And I find that not only counterproductive, but harmful. And so I push back on that to anyone who gives me that.
And it is not, and let me,
Monica: can we frame that for the people who are listening? 'cause I would say as another term is toxic positivity, where it's yes, you choose, get up today's your day. You decide if you're gonna be happy. And it's also like a skipping over of you don't have money for groceries.
Choose to be happy anyway, like you're an abusive relationship. Nope, it's up to you. Any other framework you can offer is,
Tanmeet: Yes. I think it's so important to understand why it doesn't work and why it's harmful is that actually it incites the nervous system further because we feel invisible, not seen or not heard, right?
And so I give different frames for people on what to do instead. But what I will say is that, It is so important to understand that we cannot think ourselves outta poverty, oppression, grief, and loss fully, but we can think our beliefs that we can heal. Got it. That is how we can use our mindset. That is powerful.
Our belief system is powerful. What I would say is if you're suffering through something that is not so changeable, as much of the things are that these mindset approaches work for, I would say first have fate that you can heal. That is a way that you can use mindset to your advantage. And then let's get into body and heart set, right?
Let's understand that we can heal, but to heal, we need to go back where the trauma and suffering did its havoc in the first place. We need to go back to our body and. If you think you can cognitively only get out of something, I would like to meet that person. I really would. I don't think it's possible.
What I would say is possible is to do both at the same time. So maybe that means you're cultivating a faith that you can heal, that you can do this, and. You're walking into your body every day. You're doing some kind of yoga, some kind of stretching. This is not even that complicated. Monica. I don't think people need to go to an expensive yoga class or all that's welcome.
I'm talking about sitting and noticing your sensations in your body. Stepping into your body gently, lovingly, over and over starts with simply noticing next time you're washing the dishes.
Next time you're sitting and having a cup of tea or coffee, can you get off your phone and just notice what it feels like in your body? Is something hurting? Is something stirring? Do you feel constricted in some place? On and on?
Monica: Is that where the connection part comes to play too? It's like a reconnection to your body, helps you connect.
The healing things. I'm like, how do I even phrase this? I'm sure you're gonna make sense of this much better to me. How, let's bridge
all those gaps as well.
Tanmeet: So the longest nerve of our body, which is the main nerve of our parasympathetic or relaxation nervous system, it's called the vagus nerve, which comes from the Latin for wandering.
It wanders from the base of our brainstem all the way down our trunk into the depths of our abdomen. That nerve sends more information to the brain from the body. Then vice versa, which is why I want people to understand the body translates your life more than your brain. That nerve is a prime nerve for the neurochemicals that are needed for connection and love and ease. Safety. That nerve is the way when we activate it through breath, through walking, through meditation, through gratitude, through self-compassion, and many other things. When we activate it, we not only are connecting to ourselves more deeply, we're priming ourselves to feel more connected to the world around us.
In one fell swoop, we are saying to our body, you are okay. Even if life is not fully okay right now, in this moment, you are okay and we give ourselves the tools we need to step a little more boldly into the world that we may feel have betrayed us to begin with. So none of this rights the world. Okay?
The world's, the world is on fire, okay? And the world is hard and the world is broken. And I will say in parallel, I hope we all are working towards that changing every day at the same time. I wanna be able to stand in my most loving and bold self so that I can make change, so that I can live a more thriving life.
And honestly, I really mean this not to be a better anyone at anything, but because I deserve it. I'm a sacred human being and so are all of you.
It might help the listeners to understand this even more practically by hearing a snippet of why this is so important to me, and I'd love to hear that. Yeah. And that is because when I was pregnant with my third child on top of the world, my second child, barely three at the time, was handed a death sentence.
And he was handed a diagnosis for what is called Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. Many people have not heard of it, but it is like an als in children. So it is degenerative and fatal 100%. At that moment I knew I could be quote unquote resilient and tough enough, quote unquote, to get through this, but that's not what I wanted for my life.
I wanted to live it with joy, and I did not think that was possible at that time As a mother who had her dream shattered in that moment, I also felt.
What I can say was more like a existential reckoning because I've been a Social Justice activist my entire professional career for 25 years, and I fight when something isn't right. I fight and I fight on the streets. I fight in the exam rooms, I fight in the courtrooms, I fight. And in that moment, there was nothing left to fight for.
There was no justice to be had. But what I can tell anyone listening is that this practice of seeking and finding joy has become my most potent medicine, and it has taught me that in my body is the deepest justice I will ever know. And that is of liberation, of safety, of ease, of reclaiming my power and my ability and capacity to love and connect no matter what.
Because when the world wants to shut your heart down, it not only shuts you down to the pain like it did for me, but it also shuts you down to every other emotion and the joy. And when you can walk back gently and lovingly to meet your pain, you will find something more radical.
And that's joy. I really urge anyone listening who's saying I don't know what she's talking about. I am not only a doctor who has worked with thousands of patients with severe mental health struggles. I have done trauma work around the world. I. I am also a mother, a human who struggles and who rejoices all in the same day.
And what I can tell you is that joy is worth fighting for every day no matter what.
Monica: Thank you for sharing about your son. I am gonna link to a video you shared recently of him participating in a dance off. Oh yeah. You speak of accessing joy in your body, it's clear. You pass it on to your son.
It's just incredible to see his joy in his body too. And just how you've empowered him to live his life has been really remarkable to see you, you've said a couple times, something about re going back to the pain, walking back to meet pain in your body. What
do you mean by that?
Tanmeet: I will first just say that you said that I empowered my son.
I actually think it's the other way around. Yeah. He's empowered me to find joy, but I just wanna give him credit for that. I get that. I get that. Yeah. The way to walk back is that, Look, it's primal. It's evolutionary to avoid pain. That is how we have survived. That is how we have gotten where we've gotten it is how we do that every day.
If your finger touches a hot stove, you move away instantly. Thank goodness we avoid pain. Yeah, but. We want to numb out, dissociate, distract, and escape all kinds of pain. And when something feels uncomfortable and unsettling, we may not notice it. I promise you, if you step into your body more and more, you will.
We feel unsettled in our body right away. We feel some kind of discomfort. Then we work to escape it with things that don't seem so unhealthy. Sometimes it's Netflix, which by the way isn't always a bad thing. I'm just saying that those are ways that we're not always using heroin or, yeah. And so there are ways that we are wanting to escape, look away, not deal with things. And when I say walk back towards your pain, what I mean is, When is the last time you really felt sadness and thought, I'm just gonna sit here and feel it for a little longer. I tell a story in the book of a mentor of mine who really has helped me understand all of these practices, and I called her one day on a rainy day where I could barely see through the windshield.
I stopped my car. This is shortly after my son was diagnosed and I was crying and it was raining, and I could not even see, and I called her and said, how am I gonna live this life? I just didn't understand how it could be possible. And the first thing she said to me that made me so pissed off was, you don't like to be sad, do you?
And I thought, yeah, F no, I don't like to be sad. Yeah, who does? Like I thought, what is this? How you help people? Because this is not helpful. Yeah, and so what I would say is if someone's listening to this, I get it. It's so hard to understand in our mind. At first, I really wanted, I just yelled at her basically until I understood by stepping into these practices over and over that she was right.
I didn't wanna be sad, I didn't want this life. But the more I sat in it a little more and a little more and gave myself the understanding of what it's like to feel that sadness, the more I opened up to this blissful joy at the same time. And now I understand that life is brutal and beautiful. And like you said about connection, about joy being connection sometimes.
In the darkest moments with our son where we are feeling isolated and there is nothing left. Someone will come and give us some respite. Someone will come and give us some food. Someone will merely text me and say, I'm thinking about you because I know your life is hard. And that connection brings me back to joy.
And so it isn't that joy solves everything. I'm very clear about that , joy is not a solution. It's a way to hold all the questions.
Monica: I think it's a way to not rise above them, but to move through them as your real self, as someone that you can be proud of. And at any point of the journey to say I was myself through that.
I felt it all the good and the hard. I wouldn't have thought that. A big piece to feeling more joy is to feel more of the hard things. But it makes complete sense to me. There's a difference between luxuriating and the pain Of course. Yeah. And processing it. And that's where I think a lot of your work comes into play as, again, using the body and also, therapy practices and anything else you can really get your hands on, but you can't run away from it.
It keeps finding
you. Yeah, that's what it does. Pain.
Tanmeet: Something you just said I think is very potent for people, and I want them to hear it even a different way to really cement it, which is that you said, being yourself and feeling all of it.
And what I really talk about a lot in my work and in the book is that sometimes days are just hard. Monica, they're just hard. The joy is there, but it doesn't make it less hard every day. Okay? I want people to understand that, but some days my gratitude is just that I felt everything.
So I know I'm still here. I know that I'm winning. My humanity is still with me. I'm able to feel all of it, and Understanding that we are not here to make life easy. We're here to bring ease to our life is a very different framework. And I know it can sound it can almost sound to people like, it's not enough.
I just wanna all to go away,
Monica: like all the
Tanmeet: bad, all the hard. But what I will tell you is that, I walk around most days. This is even with all the pain. I walk around feeling like I can't believe I get to live this life. I can't believe how beautiful my life is and how beautiful life is, and.
I would just, it's an invitation. It's an invitation to people for a different way because maybe the way you're using isn't serving you well enough. So people come up to me constantly after I give talks and say, what you said really moved me, but I couldn't do that. And I say the same thing. It's an invitation.
And I also say sometimes if we have more time, I say, and how is what you're doing working for you? And they say it's not, and I say then I invite you to a different way because I know that this sounds too hard. But what I would say is the way I was living this pain was way too hard and way harder than this.
Monica: I feel like I could snap on my side again. It's it's remarkable how our lived experiences can be boiled up by research and people like you can make sense of why that's the case, but I've lived this, I understand at the meat, for those who are ready to get started in this work, let's one say that they're the person raising their hand.
They're not the person who's I couldn't do that. They're more like, yeah, that's not working for me. What I'm doing is not working. I'm ready to do a new way. What does that even look like? We're thinking more about the beginning 'cause I know there's a lot more.
Tanmeet: Yeah. Yeah. The way that I've structured the book, I'll talk about the beginning is part one is all about that beginning and so it's about a few different things.
It's about understanding the science so that you understand how this is working within you. So a lot of unpacking even deeper of the things we're talking about around the nervous system, it's about unlayering your own cultural and family belief systems that may be preventing you from accessing joy, that may be making you feel you don't deserve joy.
What are those stories? And I give very practical ways of working through those. But the very first step is actually coming to an understanding for yourself of what joy means to you. And I give my touchstones for joy, but they aren't meant to be your touchstones. They are meant to inspire you to find your own.
So for instance, one of mine is that I deserve, I choose joy every day. So I help you find yours. And a very key thing, Monica, is to find your deeper why, and I really mean this because somebody listening might say the why's obvious. I wanna find joy 'cause I wanna feel better. But what I would promise you is if you unpack that through a practice of really finding your deeper why, what you will find is something deeper within that keeps you going.
When it gets hard, that keeps you going when you quote unquote slip up. That keeps you on this path.
Monica: May I ask what your deeper why is?
Tanmeet: Yeah. Yeah, I'll tell you 'cause I did this practice for myself. You would think it's because I wanna have a joy, more joyful life in the face of tragedy. That is one of the top levels.
But when I really unpack it, Monica, it's that I've never felt safe in this world. Now this takes six or seven layers down for me to figure out. For people listening, what I mean is a simple practice of, what is my why? Writing it down and then saying, but why to that? And keep going until you get several layers below and you will know when you've gotten deep enough when your body relaxes a little and you notice what is gonna give you more expansion.
For me, that's several layers. Below is living in my childhood with racism and trauma and loss and feeling not safe. Literally not safe. And understanding now that my whole life's work has been about making other people feel safer so that I feel safer working for the underdog. All my work in medicine has been for marginalized communities who are, not accessing the healthcare that people with resources can, because I want them to feel safer.
'cause in some way, if I can bring ease or safety to your body and your life, it reminds me I can bring it to mine. And so joy is my deepest mission for myself because it's to restore that safety in my body that was taken away for many decades.
Monica: Wow. That
beginning place is really important. I'm sure a lot of women are gonna want to avoid that, especially if they don't wanna, reckon the hard that is behind even that deeper level.
But again, that's where it comes back to connection. It's the flip side of pain, is that joy. Yes. And being able to connect to that why, even if it's a little painful to uncover that part of the pain that motivates the Y is what's gonna release you to then experience this
path to joy.
Yes, and if it's helpful to your listeners, you can decide as you're listening.
I would say this is a practice I use for everything, Monica, not just joy, because the neuroscience is that the more you understand the why in the meaning of what you're doing, the more you are likely to stay with it. Okay. It has been shown over and over, so exercising to look better for someone else, never less.
'cause the deeper why isn't there. There was several years ago, I started rowing on the lake. I. This is, oh yeah. Awesome. Yeah. Not a sport that I've ever been exposed to. There aren't many brown women out there, but I didn't even understand what it meant. I was like, who rose? I thought it was some preppy Ivy League thing, and for sure, but I was looking for a new way to get stronger and get fit.
Now, I had to get up at four 30 or five, three times a week to get out on the water and do this, and every time that alarm clock went off, I just wanted to go back to sleep. Honestly. And if my why had been to get more muscular and look better, those are all good. Those are all good, but those weren't deep enough to keep getting up.
And when I unpacked it several layers down, what I got to was
that if I don't get stronger as I get older, I won't be able to care for my son who's getting heavier. If I can't transfer him, if I can't care for him, how will I do this? It really became clear to me that I needed to be stronger so that I could live my life with more ease. Because if my body keeps breaking down.
How will I help his body sustain itself for whatever time he has left? And so when that alarm went off every morning, the first thought was no. And the second thought was, no, I gotta do it for this reason. And then I would get up. And so those deeper whys actually anchor us in the moment into a different part of our brain that sets meaning and context to things, and that part of the brain helps us to keep going.
So I really mean this. It is almost the most essential thing. It's one of the first chapters of my book. I really feel strongly about people finding that for themselves.
For the women who also are like me and maybe they have this detachment from the body. I've been trying to work on this. Over the last few years, especially as after I've identified, that's still an issue for me and it will help the healing process.
We like to end with one small way they can begin on everything we've learned and to me that might just be the one piece we haven't quite like fully hit on. And while we can't do a whole other hour, on that topic, what's one small way they can begin with this body piece of reconnecting to their body and helping with activating that vagus nerve and everything else you said.
Tanmeet: Yeah, this is really simple but not easy. What I would say is that one beautiful place to start would be just to commit to one to five minutes. I'm not asking for much time, anytime during the day to dedicate to noticing their breath. And I can tell you this is a potent and beautiful place to start.
You don't even have to set aside time. It could be one to five minutes while you're. Doing an activity you do every day, like we mentioned, having tea or washing dishes or caring for your child. You have to pay attention to your child. But my favorite times I will tell you are before I go to sleep or when I wake up, but another time that I often do it is in the checkout line when I find my.
My mind just spiraling into, I don't know where it goes, like what I have to do and onto stories of like, why is this person pulling out a checkbook? Who has checks anymore? I'm just going on, so find something you're always doing, checking your email or whatever it is.
If you can say, I will spend this time noticing my breath. Nothing fancy. You don't need to deepen it. You don't need to change it. Just notice it as it goes in your mouth or nose and out. Again, where can you notice it? Easiest as it enters, as it goes down your throat, as it goes through your body as it exits.
And just see if you can notice new sensations. New things in your body. Even if all you notice is distraction and boredom in your mind. People will say, if I have thoughts, then I'm failing at it, and I actually say, that's the magic moment. If you're having thoughts, that is a chance to lightly and gently come back to your breath. Over and over, and in this way, we're learning to pay attention to our body over and step back into it.
It may be the simplest, yet the most potent place to start.
Monica: Thank you for that. This whole conversation has given me so much to think about. It's also helped me make so much sense, like I said, of experiences, but also things I've been learning and I know I want to learn way more. Let's talk about your book.
Tanmeet: Yeah, thank you for asking. If people wanna purchase the book, they can just go to, joyisMy justice.com and you'll have links to Everywhere Books are Sold. There's also bonuses there for anyone who buys the book. And then I'm active on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram, but the most active on Instagram.
And I love hearing from readers or listeners with their takeaways or things that they found really resonant or also challenging. And so I would love to hear from anyone
Monica: that's so generous of you. Dr. Tanmeet Setti, this has just been the best time. Thank you for taking so much time for us out of your really busy day.
Tanmeet: you. Oh, it's been a real pleasure. This has been a beautiful conversation. Thank you.
And at the same time, can you hear my dog?
Monica: I can't hear your dog. I muted my side 'cause my neighbor's dog
Tanmeet: is barking. Okay. Okay, perfect. So we'll go back and I can edit that out, which is nice.