I will never cease to be intrigued by the process of change. How do different types of people go from having no desire to change to suddenly wanting desperately to change? And when the first few attempts at change seem to fail, what gives people the power to keep trying until they succeed? What determines how long that battle lasts? What brings joy in the journey? And, more importantly, when do things change from occasional joy in the journey to complete journey in the joy?
In my last post, I discussed six modes of motivation that I tend to cycle through in my life. I shared my story of how I became a runner and how I had to use multiple forms of motivation for over two years in order to make myself run regularly. Then one day I realized that I didn’t need to search for an outside motivation anymore because I just ran for the joy of running. I ran because I loved it. I ran because it was who I was. I had reached the Joy Breakthrough.
How does the Joy Breakthrough work? I like to compare myself to an electron within an atom, because the principles that govern the tiniest of particles of matter are a reflection of the principles that govern larger bits of matter such as me and you.
As many of you may recall from chemistry, an atom is the basic unit of matter, and it consists of a nucleus surrounded by electrons.
I’m no chemistry expert yet, but from the first chemistry class I ever took, I was instantly fascinated by the concept of how electrons exist in different “energy levels” or “orbitals.” All electrons within an atom are in constant motion around the nucleus, but each electron is restricted to a certain zone called an orbital (almost reminds me of a planet trapped in orbit around the sun). The orbital closest to the nucleus is called the “first energy level,” and there are generally two electrons “stuck” in that zone.
However, an electron doesn’t have to be confined to one energy level forever. It’s possible for an electron to jump to a higher energy level. An electron doesn’t have the power to do this on its own, though. It can get the energy it needs by absorbing photons (a.k.a. light). With this new packet of light energy, the electron becomes “excited,” and it promptly moves out of its lower energy level and “jumps” to the second energy level.
Unfortunately, this new position is unstable. Almost immediately, the electron usually gives up the extra energy that it was holding onto and falls back down to the lower energy level again.
Sound familiar? Have you ever felt like an electron? At any given time, we’re each confined to a certain “orbit” or a certain pattern of thinking, feeling, and living. We’re just going in circles. But then one day we feel empowered by light, perhaps by one of the first five modes of motivation that I mentioned last time. Perhaps we get an idea or hear an uplifting speech, or we have a positive experience that fills us with hope and drives us to set a goal to change. And then . . . before long we just fall right back into our old habits.
So what factors can keep an electron from falling back down? And what’s more, what can cause an electron to keep progressing to higher and higher energy levels until it escapes the atom completely? I asked this question to one of my brothers who is a chemical engineer. He gave me quite the list of possibilities, and I won’t go into all of them, but here are at least four that I found interesting:
- You could switch the electron to a different spin (one that doesn’t match the lower energy level) and that will delay falling to the lower level, but only for a few hours. This is how glow-in-the-dark stuff works.
- You could increase the temperature, and a larger percentage of the electrons would go to higher energy levels due to the Boltzman Distribution.
- You could rearrange the molecule to eliminate low energy zones, but that will create an unstable molecule.
- If another electron joins the atom, then one of the electrons is going to be forced to a higher energy level by the Pauli Exclusion principle.
How can we liken these four things to our own process of change? Sometimes we can delay a relapse by getting creative and putting a different “spin” on things. Sometime a deadline or impending disaster can “increase temperature,” and then feeling the heat gets us moving. Sometimes we can try rearranging our lives by trying to change everything at once, but this can make us unstable—physically, mentally, or emotionally. And sometimes another person comes into our lives who inspires us and lifts us up or whose presence demands that we change.
After giving me at least eight possibilities, my brother said, “The general principle behind it is that electrons can fall to lower states on their own but won’t go to higher states until they receive a jolt from somewhere else. Increasing the temperature causes there to be more jolts in the environment so the electrons on average will tend to be in a higher state, with an electron being completely free of an atom being the highest possible state. However, once free of the atom the electron can no longer drop down spontaneously unless it happens to crash into another atom. The end result is that above a certain temperature the electrons will start leaving the atoms spontaneously due to probability.”
The bottom line is that we can’t reach higher “energy levels” on our own. We have to receive light, and receiving light just once isn’t enough. When we’ve received enough light, there comes a point where we break free of the cycle completely and can no longer “drop down.” This is what I mean by the Joy Breakthrough. You don’t have to go around in circles trying to make yourself motivated anymore.
Just like electrons, we all exist in certain zones. We could call these zones kingdoms. Doctrine and Covenants 88:37 says, “And there are many kingdoms; for there is no space in the which there is no kingdom; and there is no kingdom in which there is no space, either a greater or a lesser kingdom.”
If we’re not happy with our “space” or our “kingdom,” then we need to seek after and soak in and retain more light. Everything moves by the laws of light. Doctrine and Covenants 88:13 says “The light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things.”
Light exists in our lives in the form of positive words, positive thoughts, positive music, positive environment, and positive deeds. The source of all light is Jesus Christ.
Not only do we need to receive light, but in order to not fall back down we have to love that light. I wish I had written down which missionary in my mission said this, but, nevertheless, it has become my favorite quote: “When you truly love something, whatever sacrifice you make for it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice.”
When I had started to run, giving up an extra half hour of sleep had felt like a sacrifice because I loved sleeping more. But now, giving up my running in order to get more sleep feels like a sacrifice because I love running more than I love sleep.
To figure out which energy level you’re in right now, ask yourself, “What feels like a sacrifice?”