Chasing Joy and Things That Don’t Make Sense


Last week I picked up a part-time job at a dress shop in downtown Annapolis. Some would say that this gig makes absolutely no sense. It doesn’t advance my career as a mental health writer and consultant. I have no retail experience whatsoever. My compensation as a sales associate hardly matches what I was making as a government contractor or an editor. And yet, every time I walk into the boutique, I feel happy and alive.

In the last six months, I have learned to pay attention to the people, places, and things that generate joy, to deviate from my formulated plan, and to take a risk on things that make people furrow their brow and say “Huh?” Swimming across the Chesapeake Bay fits into this category, as does hiking 500 miles through Spain, which I plan to do in May. They require swapping my measured strategies with random hunches — aiming to think a little less and live a little more.

From Frugal to Fashion

My new fashion frenzy is representative of a deeper transformation.

For the first 46 years of my life, I owned maybe six outfits. The word frugal doesn’t begin to describe my efforts at saving pennies or my self-imposed restrictions on purchases of any kind. In grade school, I rode my bike 10 miles across town to score a used sweater at a yard sale for 25 cents, covering its massive hole with a turtle neck of the same shade. In college, my friends mocked my “uniform,” a Notre Dame sweatshirt and hot-pink sweatpants. In my first year as a working adult, I wore all my mom’s old clothes, even her underwear. I gladly inherited her wardrobe after she quit smoking and gained 50 pounds. I never stepped foot in a boutique because I felt too guilty buying something new.

That changed one April day two years ago when I walked into The White House Black Market in Lido Key, Florida looking for a dress to wear to an important work event where I would be sitting among notable psychiatrists and experts in the mental health field. The two women helping me hung a chestnut sheath dress with a smart pink, black, and white pattern in my dressing room. Its clean lines were sophisticated with just the right touch of sass. Once I tried on the dress with the proper accessories–a cropped black sweater, a peach gemstone necklace, and matching gold earrings–I stood in front of the mirror like the made-over Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman.”

Who is this woman? I wondered. For the very first time in my life, I felt like I belonged in the league of high-powered professionals.

A fashionista was born that day. I realized that the right pair of shoes and choker necklace have similar powers to cognitive-behavioral therapy and mindfulness in improving my mood and boosting my confidence. With velvet camisoles, knee-high boots, and wrap dresses, I began applying color and style to my life. When matching suede jackets with silk scarfs and gemstone earrings, I achieved a state of flow.

Achieving a state of flow

Defined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, flow is a state of single-mindedness that harnesses all emotions into one action and produces a kind of rapture. It’s a moment of nothingness—when all senses are so focused on an activity that a person isn’t able to feel anything in his environment. This suspension of feeling can be experienced as bliss. You become oblivious to the world around you and lose track of time.

According to Csíkszentmihályi, the optimal condition for flow to happen is when the challenge level of a task is high, met by the high skills of the person accomplishing the task. The state of “arousal” borders flow in that a person feels overly challenged, but doesn’t have enough skill to push her into flow. In a state of “control,” a person feels too comfortable for his skill level. By adding more challenge, he goes into flow.

A friend of mine achieves flow by designing colorful jewelry and felted soaps. Another escapes her world by knitting. Both consider their crafts as strategies to maintain sanity, as mental vacations from worry and ruminations. These fleeting moments of focus and single-mindedness foster emotional resiliency and good mental health. Research indicates that people who experience flow on a regular basis have lower levels of depression and anxiety.

Random joy

I’m not expecting bliss from my new job. They call it work for a reason. However, spending a few hours in my happy place each week might cultivate joy and make me feel alive. Engaging in conversations with strangers may provide a nice balance to the solitude of my writing. Maybe using the cash register will even activate dormant brain cells and pull me out of my head a bit.

American actor and singer Jonathan Groff once said, “Just follow your joy. Always. I think that if you do that, life will take you on the course that it’s meant to take you.” Sometimes it’s good to adhere to a plotted blueprint, to take the obvious path. Other times it’s better to drop your plans, do something totally random, and chase joy.

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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13 Responses
  1. Mimi Florance

    Funny. Six months ago I started a part-time job, weekends and nights, in the hardware department at a HomeDepot store. I am a building design professional, and I will admit if, I have been dealing with sometimes debilitating anxiety since forever. I come from a family of builders so even as a female I have a very good aptitude for such things. I continue to be amazed that this small diversion has such a positive effect on my generally poor sense of self. My dealings with customers is quick and I get instant gratitude from them when I can direct them or guide them to a solution for their project. There is no time or opportunity to anguish over how stupid I am.

    1. I think that’s wonderful that your immense talent is demonstrated at your home improvement store job. I do the same thing that you do, and disqualify every skill I have that could be considered talent. Just because we know a particular skill set, we disqualify ourself because we consider it invaluable. But we each have gifts are that our talents, which help us to be aware of those gifts when we demonstrate them to others. And that, my dear, is so very meaningful! Thank you for sharing your story. It helps me to learn more about myself.

  2. Mary

    I’ve thought of a part-time job but can’t take that step. I know all the thoughts that roam my head stopping me. Thank you for the affirmation that it helps. It sounds like you’re walking the El Camino (Way of St. James)? Another dream I have. So glad you’ve found “your” way.

  3. Kathryn

    Dear Therese
    This is a beautiful post and it describes perfectly what I called the “zone” I would go into when I was first doing Scrapbooking. I would come home from a long, very busy and stressful morning shift as a Midwife and, without even changing out of my uniform, would sit at my craft table and lose myself to hours in my craft. My housemate, who was a GP, sometimes came home at 9pm and asked me what I was still doing in my uniform and had I even eaten yet – and I would really have to think about what I had done in the previous 5 or so hours other than work on my craft.
    I felt so drained and exhausted and in pain when I got home but emotionally refreshed and ready to sleep by the time I had finished for the day on my craft project.

    It is certainly a wonderful place to go and be refreshed when you can find that place on a regular basis. Thankyou for bringing it to our attention in this way.

  4. Dianne

    Your post describes my recent situation as well.
    I walked away from a demanding and stressful IT career about 15 months ago. A little too young to retire, but not wanting to continue at a demanding and stressful job at another company, I landed a part time job at a church and it has been just as you describe above. I ask myself how can I be so content at a simple job?! The anxiety of my previous work and the demanding hours that went with it, had become such a way of life for me, I didn’t know how to live without it.
    Enjoyed your insight.

  5. Pat

    As you wrote about flow I was transported to my happy place which is a mountain cabin with my anam cara. An anam cara is person who cares for you deeply and knows your spirit. When I am blessed to be in that place time is definitely in suspension, it just flows. Thank you for these thoughts

  6. Mary Keen

    What a wonderful, wonderful writing. You are right on track Therese! You continue to help so many of
    us on our journey. Living with depression and anxiety is misunderstood by our family and friends
    But if we look for what brings us Joy in life this will help us so much.
    Thankyou for such a wonderful message. I love and look forward to receiving all your e-mails!

  7. Kate

    Happy to hear you’re coping Therese and finding joy in new places. So much to learn in this second half of life. So much to let go of and so much to receive in the surrender of what we thought was so important. Peace to you.

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