Sowing the Seeds of Joy
There are certain things known for evoking joy in people, such as babies, puppies, the ocean, dancing, music, singing, and mountain vistas. Joy can be hard to define, though it is one of those feelings that we just know when we feel it. The internal experience of joy has been described as buoyancy, silliness, vibrancy, expansiveness, openness, awe, abandon, elation, playfulness, wonder, lightness, feeling energized, warmth, connectedness, spontaneity, feeling moved, and being unselfconscious.
These are some of the things that pretty consistently bring me joy: walking near water in the blue hour; being greeted at the door by a dog (or cat) as if you are the best part of their day; participating in meaningful rituals with friends; eating pasta and gelato in Italy; listening to live music in small venues; hiking in old growth forests; low-hanging full moons; the segment of Oregon Route 35 where Mt. Hood rises up directly in front of me; unexpected rich conversations; a shelter dog I’ve walked getting adopted; and visiting family when I haven’t seen them for some time.
What brings you joy? This is an important question to consider. Even though we often cannot predict when joy will visit us, we can seed the conditions that welcome it into our lives. And another important question to reflect upon: what dulls your experience of joy?
The experience of joy is often episodic, meaning we feel it in moments or bursts. While these moments aren’t continuous, they are poignant and make life meaningful. The feeling of joy is one of profound connection – connection to ourselves, to others, to nature, and to the present moment.
Joy is not an absence of suffering or negative feelings; on the contrary. Joy is most possible when we are open to the full range of emotions and experience. Ross Gay, poet and essayist, defines joy as “what emanates from us as we help each other carry our sorrows.” For him, joy and sorrow are intimately linked: if you get too far away from one, you’ll lose sight of the other.
Carl Jung, an influential 20th century psychoanalyst and philosopher, believed that to live fully, we must learn to balance joy and sorrow. If we close ourselves off from painful or unpleasant experiences, we can also lose access to that which enlivens us. Jung thought that too many people found the experience of sorrow so disagreeable that they avoided it, and as a result, dimmed their joy. For Jung, it was the transitoriness of life, which is a kind of universal sorrow, and the acceptance of death, that enables us to feel joy in the smallest of things.
Getting clarity on what is happening within ourselves, our minds and bodies, and how we relate to what is happening both within and outside of us, is the path to a life of purpose. People have reflected on these things throughout history by turning to meditation and other contemplative practices, and in more modern times, through the process of psychotherapy.
If we take the path of self-knowledge seriously, we are better able to embody our core values and experience contentment and well-being. And along the way, something else starts to happen: the external world starts providing opportunities for joy that we couldn't have imagined.
We live in a culture where too many people are stressed and overcommitted, which crowds out the space to experience joy. To sow the seeds of joy, it is essential to create space, externally in our schedules, and internally in our psyches.
Full schedules and a life of commitment to things we value are time-consuming, yet don't have to interfere with joy. But we do need to consciously choose the commitments in our lives so that there is time to muse, play, meander, and imagine.
For example, social media can be a helpful tool when used intentionally and with healthy boundaries. But too often the time spent on it crowds out time and space for other things that bring joy. Another example: there is no problem in thinking about ways to make more money, but when the pursuit nears an obsession with wealth, it inhibits our joy. And giving someone else too much power over our well-being is another surefire way to dim joy.
Every one of us has external conditions, blind spots, emotional struggles, and problematic habits that can steal our joy. By cultivating understanding of what keeps us from feeling joy, and committing to create space to welcome it, we can create a life of deeper meaning and purpose.
Practices in Opening to Joy
Write down what brings you joy. Get as specific as you can. Where were you when you last felt joy? What was happening around you? Try to imagine yourself in your mind’s eye at the time. Were you by yourself, or with others?
How much time do you spend on activities that may be interesting or mildly entertaining – but take away from time spent on things that bring you joy? Make a list of these things and track the amount of time you spend over the course of a week.
Create space in your day for unstructured time with no commitments. Make this time sacred; put it in your calendar like an obligation if that makes it easier. This creates the opportunity for internal space, a necessary precursor for spontaneous joy.
In the space that you create, do things that brought you joy in the past. Take walks, play games, dance around the house, read poetry, watch a sunset, or take a road trip!