The EASIEST way to feel joyful

Many thanks to Shabnam Mogharabi of SoulPancake and Rev. Dean Seal for their participate in this interview!

I don’t understand the big mystery. Discovering your life’s purpose and a perpetual, overwhelming sense of joy and fulfillment sounds like a piece of cake. I mean, it seems like all my Facebook friends are doing alright for themselves and everyone on Instagram looks pretty damn happy; I’m not sure what all the fuss is about. From what I can gather, the recipe for joyful living sounds pretty straightforward…

Find your tribe. Follow your dream. Connect. Share ideas. Get plugged in. Live the moment. Love the little things. Cultivate community. Be present. Be engaged. Be authentic.

It’s a super easy 11-part plan.

Except that it’s not. It’s not easy at all. Just ask any mom sitting amidst a mountain of unmatched socks and slightly stale PB&J crusts, a mom that hasn’t spoken to a real, live, human adult in over six hours.

Or just ask me. ‘Cause it’s me. That mom is me. And I’m actually eating those crusts.

This whole contentment conundrum gives me pause because, in a moment in time when it could not possibly be easier for me to connect with other people via a dizzying variety of social platforms, why do I often feel so isolated? So powerless? So in need of feeding my kids lunch at 10:58am, just to make the day go by a little bit faster?

And the thing is, when I feel this way, it’s not just the sensation of total and complete loneliness that eats away at my very soul, spiraling me deep into a caffiene-fueled, vacuuming frenzy of despair – it’s the sense that I am not fulfilling a larger purpose outside of my own immediate needs. Feed the kids. Fold the laundry. Fix another pot of coffee. Not a very altruistic daily routine, if you ask me.

So I set out to discover a way to fill myself up; to exercise my desire to take action and find that “tribe” everyone is always talking about. And I decided that I would look for these things in two places: Online and with actual people – sans filters.

Because it’s 2017 and my iPhone is literally never more than an arm’s length away from me, I decided to start with the world wide web.

Over the last few months, I’d begun connecting with a handful of mom writers via Instagram and found it to be a really positive outlet, so to take my online inquiry one step further, I decided to reach out to one of my favorite uplifting media platforms, SoulPancake (founded by The Office alum Rainn Wilson). I wanted to know if it was possible to be “filled up” by an online community, or would turning to an internet-driven culture actually decrease my overall well-being?

I spoke with SoulPancake CEO Shabnam Mogharabi about my search for the holy grail of internet happiness, and her thoughts on why our society is so actively seeking purpose and connection.

“We haven’t quite hit that point where the internet has found a way to help Millennials find their sense of self and their sense of purpose. And that’s the thing that I think is missing, right now, online. There are very few places where people can go to become better versions of themselves and to fulfill that sense of purpose that we’re all trying to find… and that’s very much what we at SoulPancake are trying to do. We’re trying to give people a way to consume content that inspires them to find that sense of purpose and that sense of connection inside themselves.”

Rainn Wilson's SoulPancake

From what I can see, it appears like their model is working. Projects like the series My Last Days, which launched a campaign that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for osteosarcoma research thanks to the narration of 17-year-old Zach Sobiech’s journey through terminal cancer, are proving that internet communities are showing up for each other; that individual stories told online are moving enough to cause viewers to take “joyful action.”

SoulPancake’s success echoes a 2007 study that revealed this: when presented with either statistical information about the number of starving children in Africa or the photo and personal story of a child, people were exceedingly more likely to donate money when presented with a story and photo. Because we, as human beings, have an innate desire to connect with one another – whether it be across oceans or via Ethernet cables. Or let’s be real here, over wifi.

Okay, so great – the internet is not actually ruining my life and real science tells me that my instinct to connect, share and donate because of personal stories told on platforms like SoulPancake is in keeping with human nature and will actually make me a more compassionate, joyful individual.

Got it.

But what about in real life? In order to find true happiness it stands to reason that I should interact with some non-internet based humanoids. But I tend to be more of a social introvert so finding consistent community can be a little bit tricky for me. To help me understand more about finding joy in community, I reached out to social activism expert Rev. Dean Seal, who leads a “[LBGTQ] friendly, Dr. King-oriented Presbyterian church” in Chaska, Minnesota that focuses on social empowerment and building relationships through shared altruism and empathy.

When asked about how his congregation fosters joy through community, Rev. Seal was emphatic about the importance of connecting first with those in your immediate proximity and then using the empathy that is fostered from those connections to take care of those in need. “You’re creating an altruistic environment where you’re caring for each other… then you add some altruistic actions that help you care for other people.”

His message mirrors the science on this subject, which he would be glad to share with you if you’re ever in Chaska. Those who are a part of a congregation (no matter the religious affiliation) tend to live longer because, as Rev. Seal would put it, “brains connect with each other when they’re in a room… through proximity, through eye contact and through the heart.” The data is so staggeringly in favor of church (or temple or mosque, etc) going, that it was equal to that of refraining from smoking cigarettes. Apparently, we human beings have an innate need to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, especially if we’ve got a hefty nicotine habit.

So it seems that the happiness recipe I’ve been seeking is a two-parter. Because there’s no denying the inevitability of engagement via social platforms – finding an online community that encourages altruistic engagement, not one that just helps me, as Mogharabi would say, get “all the likes”, is crucial. If I’m going to engage online, it might as well be for the good of humanity, right? Secondly, I need to get my rear end to a place where I can interact with humans in their natural habitat. Specifically, a place where compassion, empathy and joyful action are encouraged. It’s a marriage of the virtual and tangible.

It’s the happiness hybrid approach.

The SoulPancake series The Science of Happiness is a perfect example of a blending of the two worlds. The series of webisodes offer, as Mogharabi would put it, ways to put “joy in action”: Be grateful. Do good. Forgive. Hug. It’s a formula that real-life community expert Rev. Seal could get behind, which was most clearly illustrated when I asked for his advice to the next generation about moving towards a community of empathy and compassion. His formula was simple: “Find something to do and go do it.”

Lemme just finish up these crusts and I’m going to get right on it.