The coffee mug proclaims it, the greeting card, the T-shirt, the billboard, the bumper sticker, the GIF: “Joy!” The word is everywhere. Those old standbys—Joy of Cooking, The Joy of Sex—have been joined by many other books. So, so many: The Joy of Yoga, The Joy of Foraging, The Complete Joy of Homebrewing.
And why not? It’s a wonderful word—so short, so sweet, so onomatopoeic, sounding just like what it means. Like “fun,” only way more caffeinated. It’s exciting. It’s giddy. It’s pumped. It’s a rush. Who, besides hard-core beer nerds, would buy How to Homebrew? Boring. And why would one be tempted to learn the benefits of vinyasa through “The Practice of Yoga”? The ancient Indian discipline is surely a practice, but no one likes the sound of a homework assignment.
Maybe we’re tossing the word around so much because we need joy now more than ever, what with the din of divisive politics, technology run amok, the tolling bell of climate change. And our brains are wired for joy. It’s built into us, and it’s infectious. Look at a baby—or an octogenarian—cracking up. It cracks us up. And calling a book The Joy of Foraging isn’t just crafty advertising. Who but a curmudgeon wouldn’t get a rush from finding fresh watercress growing at the bank of a stream, or coming upon fiddlehead ferns, with their perfect spit curls, during a walk in the woods?
Maybe we are tossing the word around so much because we need joy now more than ever
Those—and about a million others (fresh sheets, a perfect peach, a bouquet of peonies)—are just your basic small joys. Then there are the ecstatic ones that knock our socks off. The birth of a child. The heart’s leap at reuniting with a long-absent loved one. The clean scan after a cancer scare. The moments that make all the other moments—the bill paying, the root canal, the standstill traffic, the busted water heater that floods the basement, the computer that freezes (gah! Not that horrible rainbow wheel again!)—worth it. They are the gifts given to us as sublime reminders that life, with all its troubles and endless irritants, is so worth it.
Still, too often we can’t seem to sustain it, this joy. It comes, and it goes. Bad things happen to good people. The trusted pal betrays us, the loved one leaves again, the rumor at the watercooler wasn’t a rumor at all. So now we’re shattered. Or angry. Or we feel sorry for ourselves, and for our real-world woes and worries. Could joy be only a fair-weather friend? Are we foolish to think otherwise?
We get it back eventually, this capacity for joy, but most of us also think this: life is harder than it is joyous, and moments of joy are the best we can do. Big sigh.
Psychiatrist and author Mark Epstein, trained in traditional Western psychiatry but a practicing Buddhist as well, offers a more optimistic take. “One dimension that the Buddha's world gives to us is this sense: not of the unconscious being only a whirlpool or cesspool of destructive feelings, but also a background of joyful and loving energy that is here if we are willing to look for it, or is even here if we are receptive to it.”
We can invite joy in—if we can be open to it. And this is not just a trippy concept: our brains are plastic, all the research shows, and they can grow, change, and shift throughout our lives. We can teach those neural pathways to pump more joy. And we should, if we know what’s good for us: we’ll live healthier, longer, more fulfilling lives as a result.
So how do we open ourselves? Curiosity, compassion, connection, kindness, service—all open us to more joy. The kind of joy, soulful and deep, that can sustain us through disaster and sorrows. Take a class. Look at art. Make art, even if it’s bad. Listen, really listen, when others tell you their troubles. Roast a chicken for a sick friend. Take care of yourself. Remember to eat, to sleep. Try not to gossip, to be jealous, to crave what you don’t have. Clear the clutter. Clean the cupboards. Bring order to the house.
But isn’t all this such a . . . tall order? OK, then, start small. Just breathe then. In. And out. Listen to your beating heart, even when your heart is hurting. Especially when it’s hurting. What an astonishment. What a joy.
Photo credit: Kate Baumgartner