Jan 12, 2022
Alumni News, Creative Writing

UVA Today • by Whitelaw Reid  January 3rd, 2022

As the pandemic raged last spring, University of Virginia alumna Katya Davydova found herself, like a lot of people around the world, not being able to do so many of the things she enjoyed –such as seeing friends, going to concerts, or just hanging out in coffee shops.

Coupled with job stress (the company where she worked was going through a merger), Davydova realized she was becoming a new version of herself – one that she didn’t like. “In the season where the world was grinding to a halt, I felt like I was frenetically always on the go. I became a human doing, and not a human being,” she said.

It was then that Davydova knew she needed to do something to recalibrate – and that would come in the form of what she refers to as an “experiment.”

Davydova began writing down any and all of her daily joys that “made the ordinary feel extraordinary.” It could be the smiling eyes of a masked stranger at the grocery store, the sound of a bird’s wings flapping in the breeze, or just observing “whimsical” nuances of neighbors. “It was all so delightfully simple, and simply delightful,” Davydova said. “By writing about these moments, the world began to feel more colorful and new again.”

Davydova turned the moments into a new book called “Joy in Plain Sight: Stories and Essays Celebrating Wonder in the Ordinary” (New Degree Press), due out in May.

Davydova, who was born in Uzbekistan and emigrated with her parents to Northern Virginia at the age of 7, double-majored in cognitive science and psychology and minored in Russian at UVA. After graduating with highest distinction in 2015, Davydova worked as a consultant in the health care industry and then in higher education while earning her master’s degree in organizational development and knowledge management from George Mason University. She then moved to Los Angeles and worked in “people operations” in the tech world before moving to her current role as a leadership facilitator at LifeLabs Learning, a company that helps managers, executives, and teams hone their people skills.

Boar's Head Resort. Winter Wander Trail of Lights.

UVA Today caught up with Davydova via email to learn more about her first book and for a few tips on finding joy.

Q. The book is a collection of essays you have written on separate topics that all pertain to joy?

A. That’s exactly right. My goal was to interact with the world, whether within the comfort of my home or while venturing into known and unknown lands, and practice the art of noticing. Any delightful thing or moment that caught my eye got memorialized in my digital notebook to then be woven into a cohesive narrative later on. The weave of that narrative pulls from memories, experiences, worldly phenomena, and sometimes, a sprinkle of imagination.

Q. What do you think distinguishes your book from the so many other books that are out there about finding happiness?

A. Mine is not a prescriptive nor didactic book – I’m not here to tell readers the five easy steps to find everlasting joy. “Joy in Plain Sight” is just one person’s take on how to make sense of the confusing, noisy world, weaving in my own memories and sometimes research – and perhaps that’s the beauty of it.

Humans are intrinsically drawn to and bound together by the stories they tell, and mine is just a minuscule thread into the tapestry of our existence. Maybe it will connect with some readers’ own threads and inspire them to find their own joy in plain sight and spread it to others. That is my ultimate wish with this book.

Q. In that vein, what has worked for you personally? Do you have any tips that might help people?

A. Identify WHY you want to have more joy: Any successful, substantial change is ideally rooted in something bigger and meaningful to the individual person. I personally wanted to focus on finding the joy in everyday moments because I’d noticed (for years) the deleterious effects of not being able to sit still, of being driven by productivity and accomplishing one thing after another. I wanted to be more at peace with the current moment, to be so passionately in the now, that I needed something simple that I could do every day, anywhere.

Your why could be to also feel more present, or to have one more tool in your arsenal against stress, or even to try an experiment for only a month to see how your outlook may change. This could look like writing about a current pain point, and where joy could show up more fully.

First-time author Katya Davydova’s new book, “Joy in Plain Sight,” comes out in May. (Contributed photo)

Consider the treasure hunt framework: We all have and make assumptions about how the world works, all which help us cope with the complexity of life. Consider adding the treasure hunt framework to your list! It’s an assumption that our environment contains infinite hidden treasures every single day. The secret? It is our job to find or perceive them.

When we assume that things are, for the most part, good, and that there is joy hiding in plain sight, we tend to experience the world as good and colorful and joyful on the whole. Ample research on positive emotions and mindset overwhelmingly supports this hypothesis, and the implication is that people with an optimistic set of assumptions tend to fare better psychologically, mentally and physically.

Pick one thing every day: Make it a habit to mentally notice at least one thing every day that makes you pause and revel in a single moment. This can be a tree that you’ve walked past for the last several years, noticing its bark patterns as if it’s the first time you’re seeing it; an interaction with a stranger that made you smile; a particular food you’ve finally satisfied the craving for; a serendipity in timing in your schedule. Try this every day for 30 days (and better yet, jot it down in a notebook or your phone).

The point is to train your brain to pay more attention to the world around you, and notice the little things that are always there. Now, while this might sound simple, it’s not all that easy, especially since, as a society, we tend to be “go-go-go.” Give this a try, and notice how your perceptions change.

Choose a word of the month/year: Even though the overwhelming majority of New Year’s resolutions fail, it is helpful to have a north star to guide your decisions. For many, this comes in the form of a word – a theme for the year (or month, if starting out small).

For example, in 2019, my word of the year was “bold.” Having consciously chosen that word, that year I ended up choosing a wildly colorful pair of glasses frames (to contrast my modest choices from previous years), and quitting a stable job and uprooting my sense of home and community to drive across the country to dive into a new career path. I chose to make bold life choices, and these actions paid off tremendously.

Your word can be anything, like “rest” or “calm” or “radiant,” and the point is to consciously set an intention for the year. Again, if committing to a year sounds daunting, try out a word of the month! Try to connect this word to your quest for joy.

For example, if your word is “calm,” you might be more prone to noticing the beauty in things like a still moment with your morning coffee, a delightfully placid lake, or the way your body feels after a long bath.

Choose and use your antidote to stuck-ness: Of course, there will be numerous moments and days when you are too tired/angry/upset to see the joy in the world. This is normal; we are only human and need to feel our feelings fully.

Where this could be dangerous is when we start to spiral in our negative thoughts and stay “stuck” there for hours, days, weeks, or more. The goal is to plan ahead to pivot from darker moments through an individual behavioral cue. This cue is something you know gets you out of a funk, like a particular song, a stretch, a snuggle with a pet or human.

Whenever you feel a moment of stuck-ness, bring your attention to your feelings, and enact that cue. For example, a few weeks ago, I was glued to the couch after a particularly tough workday, doom-scrolling on my phone while knowing I had a bit of work left that night. Finally, the discomfort and cognitive dissonance of my current state got to be too much, so I played my favorite song and did a quick, 15-minute workout. That really did brighten up my attitude, and I was able to have a successful and relaxing evening afterward.

Q. How did what you studied at UVA help and prepare you for what you are doing, career-wise? Any memorable classes or professors?

A. Studying the art and science of human behavior, rooted in research and practical experiences, and culminating in a Distinguished Majors Program thesis in psychology, helped prepare me for grad school and a career in organizational development. The difficulty and variety of classes at UVA set me up for success when I worked in consulting, and gave me the practical skills and grit to have a flourishing career thus far.

One of my favorite professors was Dr. Jimmy Coan, whom I had for both undergrad and graduate-level psychology classes, and he encouraged me to pursue my dreams, as clichéd (but true) as it sounds. Another was my Russian professor, Dr. Lilia Travisano, who took me under her wing and basically taught me to read and write formally in Russian in a personalized setting.

Q. What did you think you wanted to do career-wise after you graduated, and how does that compare to what you’re doing now?  How much has it changed, if at all?

A. I wanted to be a clinical psychologist for the first 22 years of my life … until I completed my thesis fourth year. I realized I didn’t want to spend the majority of my time in a lab, doing research, but instead wanted to make a direct impact on people using extant research.

When I started out in consulting, I was still a bit lost, but my M.S. in organizational development, along with a few internships in that space, catapulted me into how to help others thrive in the workplace. After all, I thought, if we spend the majority of our lives working, shouldn’t we find joy and meaning in what we do? That thought carries me to this day, where I teach others the practical skills of how to do just that – and rooting those skills in the latest psychology and neuroscience research.

Davydova is currently offering coaching and workshops for individuals, teams and companies. For information, she can be reached at katya@katyadavydova.com.

“Joy in Plain Sight” will be available anywhere where books are sold in late May.