What Gives You Joy?

I was intrigued when I first read the title of a book a few months ago. Well, intrigued, and also a bit dubious. And so, I just had to read it! The book? “Joyful: the surprising power of ordinary things to create extraordinary happiness” by Ingrid Fetell Lee. As it turns out, I loved it. I read it slowly, taking close to the three-week loan period from the library to savour each chapter and re-read parts of the book a couple of times.

The concept of joy had been on my mind quite a lot before I read that book, especially since about December, when I went to the first session of a workshop that touched on topics like cultivating joy, releasing our fears, establishing new approaches to our unhealthy habits, and coming up with a sacred word for 2019. As with the “Joyful” book, my first thought about the workshop was, “Hmm, that sounds good but also kinda airy-fairy and fluffy, no?” It ended up being a fantastic workshop; my mom joined me for the last couple of sessions and she also gleaned much from them.

Merriam-Webster gives this definition of joy: “the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune, or by the prospect of possessing what one desires; delight; a state of happiness; bliss.” Joy and happiness are similiar, but to split hairs for a second here, I’ll point out that joy is a deeper, more intense emotion. It’s a feeling of appreciation for life and of inner peace, even when circumstances are less than ideal. It’s not quite as fleeting as happiness, but on the other hand, it usually doesn’t show up quite as often either.

For much of my life, when asked “What brings you joy?” my responses were automatic: friends, family, God, helping others, giving. Perhaps those responses came up so quickly for me because they’d been programmed into me, and perhaps I didn’t always give much actual thought to them. At times, those responses rang very true, of course — I DID get much joy from those places. As I reach my mid-thirties and life gets very complicated sometimes, I’m likely to give a more well-rounded answer: “Yes, my family and my friends bring me great joy sometimes! I am so lucky to have so many wonderful people in my life! But also… but also, people — including myself — bring many things to the table, and some of those things are the complete opposite of joy.” As well, there have been times in my life when many of my relationships seemed distant and inconsistent, not necessarily because of anything that anyone was or wasn’t doing “correctly,” but just because that’s how life goes sometimes. There are times when we are well-connected, our social lives are active, and there’s a seemingly constant flow of phone calls, emails, and text messages. And then there are other times when we experience silence for way too long, or when we just don’t seem to “click” with many people in our circle. And yes, there are times when we lose people; friendships do break apart sometimes and people pass away. When it comes to God as a source of joy in my life, well, my relationship with Him has certainly changed in the last eight years, and at this time I no longer believe in the God I grew up with. The loss of my religious faith definitely wasn’t a joyful time. In fact, of the losses in my life, that was probably the one that shattered my world the most and for the longest period of time.

That’s not to say that I’ve been living in darkness and emptiness for extended periods of time just because some of my sources of joy have changed. Definitely not. Joy often leaps out at me at unexpected times and from unexpected places. I am reminded that people continue to add joy to my life, even if it looks different than it did 10 or 20 years ago. Whether it’s a phone call with my brother, a chat with a patient at work, or a visit with my little elderly neighbour on the third floor, these things often brighten my day immensely. Donating money and time makes me feel good; actually, we often do these “selfless” things because we – and not only the recipients of our donation – get good feelings out of the deal, too. I’ve always enjoyed reading, and that most certainly brings me much joy. Learning new things, escaping into someone else’s world for a few chapters, becoming more curious about the world we live in — those things bring me happiness (or at least help me to focus less on my own stuff). For someone who’s never been too inspired by nature or animals, in the past couple of years I’ve been continually amazed as I pick up books like National Geographic’s “Birds of the Photo Ark” or “100 Dives of a Lifetime” or Jane Goodall’s “Through a Window: 30 years observing the Gombe chimpanzees.” I catch myself being more observant when I go for walks, whereas I used to be so wrapped up in my own thoughts that I wouldn’t pay much attention to the big world around me. And although I’ve never had the instinct to have a baby of my own, I am that person on the bus who’s making silly faces at babies and I do relish the opportunity to hold someone else’s baby or buy cute things for them.

And now, enter “Joyful”! This book helped me to seek joy — delight! pleasure! awe! – in places where I don’t normally look for it. For me, this is a bit of an undertaking, because I’m not very observant about the physical world. I’m the person who notices someone’s new haircut or a new car in their driveway a month later. I’m not talented at things like applying make-up or putting together an outfit. I’ve lived in my apartment for two years, and every once in a while I realize that still haven’t bought all those plants I’d planned to buy…two years ago. Much of the time, I have a one-track mind and I don’t see all the things on the side.

I picked up the book and was immediately intrigued by the chapter titles: “Celebration,” “Freedom,” “Renewal,” “Harmony,” “Surprise,” and many more.

The first chapter is “Energy,” and as I began reading, I was reminded of the fun splashes of colour that I’ve seen in unexpected places. These colours add a burst of energy to their surroundings: a huge painting of sunflowers in my friend’s dining room, a red vase amid black or white vases in another friend’s living room, bright balloons in a patient’s room at work, a patch of purple wildflowers along the highway. The world isn’t always a cheerful, bright place, but even those seemingly trivial objects do indeed add a touch of joy, a sign of hope, or, if nothing else, some eye candy! 

The “Abundance” chapter caused me take note when I see many of something: neatly stacked grapefruits or heads of lettuce at the grocery story, a starry night sky, shelves of neatly lined-up books. Not only are these things quite fascinating to look at (the stars in the sky, more so than grapefruits, probably!), but it reminds us just how fortunate we are to have so much available to us. We sometimes forget just how fortunate we are to be in this place and at this time, and perhaps even these “little things” can remind us of our good fortune.

As we become adults, I’m sure that many of us forget about the necessity of such things as play and silliness. We often pass by the bizarre things that could bring smiles to our faces and lighten our moods for a brief moment or two: those inflatable tube people that “dance” in front of businesses; catching a glimpse of someone’s silly socks, worn with an otherwise formal outfit; a couple of googly eyes stuck onto a cactus plant or an orange!

Another chapter is “Transcendence,” and the author writes about the ways in which we’re often inspired to “look up!” And what a joy it can be to focus upwards, instead of down or forward. Whether we’re admiring the fancy architecture of some buildings (or maybe just the fact that they’re SO high), or watching clouds drifting across the sky, or looking for the birds we’re hearing as we walk by a cluster of trees, why not spend a bit more time looking up? There’s a big world out there! The author’s mention of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta inspired me to do a bit of an internet search for articles and photos of this event. Now each time I touch my phone, I see a bunch of hot air balloons dotting the sky. The author also includes tips on how to create more harmony not only in our surroundings, but in our lives, by getting rid of clutter or switching up our routines to eliminate unnecessary steps.

Becoming more conscious of joy – what it is, where to look for it, how to expand it – isn’t always an easy task. Personally, I’m very good at getting stuck on a well-trodden path of ruminations of the past (especially not-so-pleasant events) and then catastrophizing something that is a month or perhaps 30 years in the future…then more ruminations…and more catastrophizing. I realize that it might be nobler to spend any available thinking time on such things as eliminating poverty and saving the planet. I also realize that it’s unrealistic to constantly be thinking about such high aspirations. But maybe, just maybe, examining that pretty floral arrangement at the grocery store or remembering a silly joke to share it with a co-worker would be more beneficial than plodding down my usual path. Maybe those are small ways to bring about more joy and make life just a bit better for everyone.

Here are some additional resources to help you find a bit of joy!

“50 Ways to Add Joy to Your Day” by Carolyn Rubenstein    psychologytoday.com

“Hardwiring Happiness: the new brain science of contentment, calm, and confidence” by Rick Hanson “Hardwiring Happiness Dr. Rick Hanson at TEDxMarin 2013”  youtube.com “Where Joy Hides and How to Find It by Ingrid Fetell Lee”  youtube.com The Aesthetics of Joy (Ingrid Lee Fetell’s website) aestheticsofjoy.com