It is my strong contention that the best chance to encounter joy is when you are not in control — when you put yourself in a position to encounter something new and wander into “uncharted” territory.
In my role orchestrating “uncharted” experiences for students studying at a university in Australia, I’ve had a front-row seat to watch people balance caution and adventure. After observing how a desire for control impacts our capacity to experience joy, I challenged our students to try something new every day. The results were revealing.
I went to Australia to become director of a study abroad program that put me in charge of 20 students studying for almost five months in the lovely port town of Fremantle, Western Australia. My job was simple: keep my students out of the newspapers, and make sure we didn’t have any international incidents.
Students studied with us a semester at a time, and in Australia, the weather is either your friend or your enemy. If you left a grey, cold, snowy or rainy life in North American January, you arrived into a seemingly endless summer with 90-degree weather, a beach 100 yards from our building, and lovely sea breezes every afternoon. If you left a lovely late summer in North American August, you arrived into a grey, windy, and rainy world with buildings that had no central heating, and no use for all the beach gear that you brought with you because Australia is supposed to always be summer, right?! The students from Alaska were happy either way, though, because every day was an improvement for them.
In population, Western Australia is very similar to Alaska, actually. As far as landmass, we like to say that Western Australia is just like Alaska, except Western Australia is BIG — twice the size of Alaska and four times the size of Texas, to be precise. I include these aspects because it’s a useless fact and even if you don’t find the rest of this writing very interesting you’ve learned that Western Australia is twice the size of Alaska and four times the size of Texas, and perhaps later in life when the world is feeling too small you might consider spending time in Western Australia and taking a giant road trip. But I digress.
For the student arriving from winter into summer, Australia felt like a giant holiday, and the sunshine energized them. For those who left brilliant summers and came to the harshness of the West Australian winter (which is actually pretty mild, as winters go), the early darkness, wind, rain, and cold drove them indoors and sapped their will to explore. After that first, brutal experience with the mild West Australian winter, I cottoned onto the reality that these 20 students were easy to keep out of the newspapers because they spent most of their time safely in the common lounge watching movies and waiting for the weather to change.
Having survived these mild winters before, I knew that time was ticking away — while it was nice to be in the warm, familiar confines of the lounge and fellow countrymen, the world was streaming by and they were missing it.
At one point, when my students had become too house-bound, I threw down the challenge that there was no reason they couldn’t do something new every day and that the next week I was looking forward to hearing about the things they tried. There were some who stayed close, there were those who over-accepted the challenge and sought out experiences that were too varied to name in polite company, and others struck a good balance of things that would make their time memorable and shareable when they got home.
One of my students did such a thorough job of this that she kept a journal of new things she tried, and by the end of her time in Australia she had a list of more than 100 experiences. Sometimes it had to do with transportation, taking the train to a new stop, or hopping on a bus and seeing what the whole route looked like. Sometimes, after a long day, she opted for the super-basic but very courageous trip to the candy aisle (or as they call them in Australia, the “lolly aisle”) and opted for a new candy bar. Some of these new sweets were life-changing, like Tim Tams and Cherry Ripes; others she wished she could undo, like salted plums.
These moments, especially when shared, marked the day as special. Her group of friends decided to try vegemite and discovered it was very different than peanut butter, for example. The challenge also set in motion an enthusiasm in the group to create more moments where they sought out the unknown.
What are the things that keep us from experiencing joy? Sometimes, it is the just the caution that keeps us safe from the things that we perceive could hurt us. As a visitor to Australia, you need to familiarize yourself with all the potentially lethal creatures that lurk in just about every natural habitat: spiders, snakes, octopi, crocodiles, sharks, and too many more to include here. The fear of those things can drive you indoors and wall you off, but the educated soul talks to the locals and finds out what dangers are of real concern.
America has its fair share of lethal snakes, bears, mountain lions, and spiders, too — but when we live with them, we learn how to negotiate the risks and get on with things. Joy and sorrow run very close to each other — when we are conscious of that fact, we actually get to choose which of those moments we focus on. And when you focus on something, you tend to get more of it.
Uncharted territory can spring the occasional terror, like when someone steps on a stonefish or a cobbler fish (two poisonous fish I neglected to mention earlier). In life adventures as well as in love, bad experiences can lead to a caution that walls us off from embracing the unknown. Are you the sort of person who sees danger everywhere and consciously tries to de-escalate before something or someone gets broken? Or are you the sort of person who has discovered that it’s not fun until something gets broken and someone gets accused of “being the reason we can’t have nice things”?
When you place yourself in uncharted territory, you open yourself up to all manner of new experiences. I’ve heard it said that the purpose of an education is to discover one’s place in the universe. When we overly protect ourselves from known dangers, we also protect ourselves from unexpected joys.
After almost 15 years of living in Australia, one of the things I’ve discovered is that no matter where we are in the universe, an experience of joy will make us feel at home there. Once we get a taste for that joy, we are more open to the idea that joy lurks everywhere — from public transport to the lolly aisle and beyond — we just need to be reckless enough to put ourselves in a position to be swept up in a moment, whether it is something sweet or challenging (like salted plums).