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It has taken more time than I expected to get round to writing this post and I think there was definitely an element of procrastination in giving myself some time to reflect on this emotion and what it means to me – maybe this is part of my relationship with joy… So I probably don’t give myself as much time to reflect and be grateful for the sources of joy – our connections with others and the natural world.
I think reading Peter Kalmus’ book has helped me think further about what joy / happiness is – especially his chapter on our mindsets. I agree with him that we need to be able to differentiate between joy and ego-inflation to be able to appreciate and differentiate between the two. The latter being an instant buzz where you might feel like there’s more to you or an enlargement of your character – I’d imagine this is not too dissimilar to snorting a line of a popular white powder or popping a 😊 pill. I also think that ego-inflation can be derived from an audience of ego-fodder – to use a word a friend of mine made up – that could be physically at some event or virtually via social media likes or retweets. Like any form of instant gratification, you’re going to always crave a bigger hit after the buzz has worn off. You’re also probably going to ignore or look down on those who might want to kill your buzz…
I think joy / happiness is derived from something else – less transactional or financialised like so much of our lives and can be found all around us if we dare search or try to connect. I think it comes through action – from helping or connecting with others in your local area, or maybe from being outdoors and letting nature envelope you with its sights, smells and sounds. Remembering those moments of joy can be immensely powerful and motivating but could also overwhelm if it’s destroyed or lost.
I wonder if we dedicate more time to doing things that bring joy, defending nature as a source of joy and recalling those joyous moments, would this help in bringing forward the empathy and bold leadership we truly need to make the difficult decisions about the direction our society is currently heading towards?
It is not an original observation, that to be alive and awake in the world right now, is to be aware of a multiplying cascade of problems, turned or turning into predicaments. All those cans kicked down the road of Western “democracy” for decades, and the many horrors of empire and globalised capitalism are entwining in an unholy dance. Climate change, fascism, pollution of a thousand different kinds, desperate and spiralling inequality, racism and bigotry; pick your poison.
And yet, I believe that to find happiness in precious, beautiful things is not wrong, cannot be wrong, even in a time of suffering. Listening to birdsong in a woodland is a joyous experience, even if you fear for the future of the trees. Watching your children building sandcastles and splashing in the sea is a joyous experience, even if you wonder how high the sea will be when they are old. I have, in my darker moments, wondered how it can be right to feel happy, when so many are struggling to simply exist.
In my view it’s possible, although hard, to hold both things in you at once. Is this juxtaposition of feelings not the very essence of what it means to be alive just now? We cannot fight for the things that matter if they do not give us joy. The simultaneous awareness of our own blessings, and the grotesque injustices in the world, gives us the biggest reason to keep trying our best to make the world a fairer, greener, place.
One of my go-to non-fiction book recommendations is ‘Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World’ by Barbara Ehrenreich. It’s a brilliant, eviscerating take-down of the cult and industry of happiness. A positive attitude will not cure grave problems, or illness (one chapter follows women with breast cancer). Yet motivational speakers charge astronomical figures and positive thinking handbooks sell millions (my favourite title remains ‘Who Moved My Cheese?’). Their message: don’t think negative thoughts, you have the power to do anything, if anything bad happens then it is only your fault.
This individualised, commodified happiness has only increased since ‘Smile or Die’ first appeared in 2010. The wellbeing industry insists that happiness is scented candles, bath bombs and, crucially, the responsibility of each of us. Positive thinking may have reached its peak in the US, but the UK government has also tried to measure happiness and, god help us, appointed a Happiness Tsar. Once you have a metric, happiness is another thing you can succeed or fail at; something you can pursue.
So if this is what happiness has become, what’s joy? For me, it’s something more spontaneous, and fleeting. It’s also more euphoric. Joy should not be something you can address through a ten-point plan. I’m with those who see joy as a more collective, shared experience and one with a subversive element. The classic example here is carnival, but really it must depend on circumstance and context. If we equate joy too closely with dancing on the streets, then we’ll push it down the same prescriptive ‘here’s what you have to do’ path as happiness.
For what it’s worth, though, I have had much joy dancing on the streets (see also: beaches, rooftops, abandoned airports, and decommissioned power stations).
Joy may be momentary, but it can sustain through darker and harder times. And they will come: ‘joy and woe are intertwined’ (that’s William Blake, a man of a more apocalyptic bent). With the climate crisis, this intertwining takes on a particular salience with joy derived from the natural world. Out hiking, my joy triggered by, say, a landscape or flower is tinged with a sense that that it may not just be my emotion that is passing.
Although we can’t schedule joy, I do think that we can try to create the conditions and spaces that might facilitate it. I have attempted to do so, for some time, in imperfect ways that have been further challenged by the conditions of Covid-19. Collective experiences look different for a while. Something else turned the world upside down. I’m conscious that joy, like happiness may well become appropriated by capitalism. Gift shops already try to convince me of the ‘joy of small things’: objects. But even if I lose the word, I’ll cling onto my understanding of the underlying concept, and put up a damn good fight for that. Back off Marie Kondo.
Ah, finally a topic where I have nothing to say AND I won’t say it at great length.
Joy, well you take your moments where you find them and you learn to avoid places where it doesn’t happen anymore, or leaves an aftertaste. Some of the things I used to derive pleasure/joy from I look back on and think”wtaf, you fool” (nowt illegal you understand, but, yeah…).
Other sources of joy I miss. I miss being able to watch a nature documentary about the amazing life on this planet, in all its awe-inspiring (and I mean awe) beauty, complexity. I can’t do that now, because it is all coloured by the knowledge that much of it is irretrievably doomed because of …us.
So I take my joy in friendships, in intellectual accomplishments (and academic ones, if I can make those two overlap enough). In the reading of novels, non-fiction, in the films I watch, in the strenuous walks around the park with a backpack full of weights and bricks For a while, as a physio, I got joy there. But nothing lasts, does it?
But oh, joy, I am suspicious of you. Like hope, people chase you. They try to recapture that initial honeymoon feeling of being recognised and accepted by strangers as part of a Big Movement. That honeymoon feeling that they (mis?)label as joy. And in the attempt of recapturing, much else that matters is neglected.
Yes, joy, you matter, but not as much as you think, as others think. And not while I am doing my activism, thank you, unless by happy accident. Because joy, then, like greed and capitalism, you’re a menace to society..
At the risk of sounding particularly depressing here, I fear that this entry might be a little shorter than the other emotional rescue posts I’ve written. It’s probably fair to say that with everything going on in the world right now, joy is certainly not something I’m experiencing in excessive quantities. Joy to me feels almost euphoric, and tends to be something I experience in the company of friends and loved ones. Given the current situation, as I live alone and am still largely social distancing, this isn’t exactly an emotion I’m feeling in its truckloads at the minute (it’s ok, you can put your tiny violin away now).
Self-pitying paragraphs aside, this is not to say that joy is something that’s completely off limits to me. It may not be happening in vastly euphoric quantities, but more so in quiet, fleeting moments. Right now in my social distance, it tends to come from tangible experiences- hearing the rain falling on the roof of my flat, or when I’m curled up on my sofa with a cup of tea watching TV that makes me laugh. Also when reminiscing over zoom calls with friends about our long-standing inside jokes. It doesn’t necessarily stay long, but it’s definitely still there somewhere.
If you’ve made it to the end of this particularly short but probably cliched and glib-sounding post, sorry about that- I promise there is truth in what I’m saying! Ultimately I’m trying to be aware that in our fucked-up world where everything seems pretty bleak, I’m lucky to be in a position where I can experience any joy at all, in any measurable quantity. Even if it’s temporary, I’ll absolutely take whatever I can get.
Our views are not individually or collectively our “last word” – our thoughts on these emotions are a momentary snapshot in time and always open to revision, reflection.
Some of the reading here may be of help in dealing with “big feelings”.
If you’re really struggling, and we’ve opened a can of apocalyptic worms, please get help – preferably from a professional. There’s zero shame in that at all. We’re living in a very challenging time.