There’s Something About Joy
Lauren is a 30-something, agnostic, unmarried, Asian-American, woman who lives in the Bay Area.
David is a 60-something, married with an adult son, Zen Juddhist, man who lives in Flint.
The Rules – They choose a topic, and with no discussion, each knocks out around 1,000 words. What you get is the straight scoop, the skinny, the 4-1-1 on what each one thinks.
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I think there’s a difference in the phrasing “What makes you happy?” vs. “What brings you joy?” It’s subtle, but I hear those things differently. The former holds a “supposed to” energy to it, whereas the latter feels like an invitation.
Happiness feels more like a result, a choice, or perhaps a mindset. It’s something you wish for yourself and others. It’s something you might aim for or measure, so it manifests as a checkbox, or a goal line. Happiness is challenging; because, while it’s a positive thing, it can feel like a chore or a transaction… something you have to achieve : “I’ll be happy when / if …”, “Are you happy now?!” Man… there’s really some mixed messaging with that last one. It’s like there’s a standard for things that should make people happy. For example, bonuses from your employer are supposed to make you happy.
But joy? Joy lives in the present. Joy is a feeling that exists right now, and it’s fleeting. It’s in those little spikes of dopamine and oxytocin that come up at random times in your day that help tip your overall mood to a positive one. There’s something to those spikes though, isn’t there, David? You can’t have it all the time. You can’t have the good without the bad, you can’t miss something if it’s not gone, and you can’t force it. I do think you can cultivate it though. I think moments of joy are what add up to “happiness”.
Joy is a nebulous concept, yes? My definition has changed plenty over the years. In my twenties, I was a full-time bicycle racer; traveled the North American circuit, spent 4-5 hours a day in training, 365. If you would’ve asked me after a good result if I was full of joy, I’d have said yes. I’d have been wrong. A good result doesn’t make you joyful. It makes you happy. Happy is an entirely different emotion. Happy is nice, but it doesn’t last.
Lauren, ask me to look back at all those races and results and travel miles and crashes and injuries. How does that chunk of my life make me feel today? Joyful. All that I learned; how to manage elation and disappointment, the discipline and sacrifice, how to work for others, the love of lifelong fitness – it made me a much better and compassionate person today. And that makes me joyful.
Joy is deep, Lauren. Happy is skin-deep, yet joy is to the bone.
So you look for those individual moments that bring you joy; pay attention enough to be able to notice them. And you have to pay attention, but joy is an individual experience. What brings me joy may or may not bring you joy. Are you practiced at paying attention?
It’s hard to describe, but it’s easy to see or feel — kinda like love. You just know it when you see it. People lose their filter, and you get to see their visceral reaction, their true feelings that can’t be contained. You know exactly what is happening when you see a toddler giggle at experiencing something new; or a couple looking at each other and exchanging smiles that also make their eyes crinkle at the outer edges; or athletes exploding into action — yelling and jumping with their fists in the air — the nanosecond that the game is called and they have clinched the big win. We know, because we’ve felt those things in different ways for ourselves too.
The Dalai Lama says that one cannot have joy without suffering and His Holiness is not wrong. You probably know, Lauren, that I’ve been close to death several times. I’ve had two go-rounds with pulmonary embolisms. There is no bigger “drop a healthy guy dead in his tracks” killer than a pulmonary embolism. My first PE, the big one, the doc said as we looked at my scans, “get to the ER stat. I am very, very concerned.”
I’ve had two bouts of melanoma. My derm, when we discussed my care plan- “if you’d waited a year, we’d be having an entirely different conversation- the ‘you need to get your affairs in order’ conversation.”
Now, you don’t need to stare at death to feel joyful, yet I will say that crashing into death gives you a remarkable take on life. Faced with death, people become more compassionate, kinder, funnier, all the good stuff. Some turn angry and nasty and even more focused on Me, Me, Me.
I feel bad for them. They’ve decided life is unfair. Life is fair. It’s random for everyone. My brother died of oral squamous cell cancer in 2012. His primary was on his tongue; pencil eraser size. That was also the size of my primary metastatic melanoma lesion in front of my ear. We both had the best care available. He died. I lived. That’s pretty damn random. I’m the one writing about it and he’s the one I miss the hell out of.
What’s that got to do with joy? Everything. Suffering is inevitable. In life, we suffer. The ones who realize that suffering isn’t targeted directly at them, the ones who realize that life can be exceedingly brief yet incredibly unique, those are the ones who can manifest joy in what they do. Each time we’ve Zoomed, Lauren, to share these pieces and discuss our next topic, you have a cup of tea. I see the corners of your lips move up in a slight smile as you inhale the aroma of the tea.
That is joy. Joy is a deep-seated appreciation of the mundane. If I Amazon-ed you a five pound sample pack of assorted teas, you’d be happy, right? But when you make the tea, see the water boil, smell the aroma, taste all the tastes, now you’re joyful.
Kids are fantastic at cultivating joy, and I think it’s because joy is an innate part of play. To me, play is doing something where you are present, engaged, and invested in the process and having fun. Time almost suspends itself when joy shows up. Don’t you remember the awesomeness of being a kid? Life was simpler and had less distractions! When I was a little kid, I found joy in simple things, like bubbles. Seeing the soapy, rainbow veil across an often brightly colored wand with an open shape at one end. Watching the colors swirl in the light. When someone starts to blow a bubble, the hitch in your breath as you hope that the surface tension holds enough to complete the glistening sphere. Watching a fleet of opalescent spheres float in the wind, or observing the unhurried way they slowly drift back to the ground. Bubbles are magic though, and not all joy is that ethereal.
Getting older, we have less opportunities for joy and more awareness of the weight of the world. We have to think about it more, and take time to notice it among the homework and competitive sports and responsibilities and work and news. I promise, though, if you can give yourself a little wiggle room to appreciate those moments of culmination and celebrate whatever warms your heart, it will add so much good. Successes like that first time I cycled around from “999” to “000” on my Skip-It, or getting hired for my first real world “career” job… Celebrate that! Enjoy the process too. I have always loved crafting or making things and doing it well. So when I take the time to measure, cut, fold, sew, or glue something and the final product fits together smoothly with clean, even edges — be it quilt, wooden cutting board, or “cootie catcher”/ fortune teller — oh, David, the feelings of success and pride certainly release those feel good brain chemicals.
My Dad died on January 14, 2019. Once I stopped being a raging asshat of a 14 year old, my Dad and I became tight. As adults, we were the best of friends. There wasn’t anyone else I preferred to hang out with.
I have his watch. It’s stainless, nothing fancy. Dad was a lifelong sailor, loved being on boats, and each hour is marked with a nautical flag. Wearing my father’s watch fills me with joy. I just now looked down at my wrist. The sight of Dad’s watch made me feel warm and fuzzy. It’s like when you’re 4, Dad tosses you in the air, and you know he’ll always be there to catch you.
That’s joy, eh? That’s also one helluva way to be remembered. My son Aaron is 28. I suspect that when I’m gone, Aaron in his turn, will wear that watch. Since he was also exceptionally close to his Papa, he’ll feel the same way about the watch. No surprise, that notion fills me with joy.
The world doesn’t revolve around just us though. Even though I’m the one experiencing joy, it can absolutely involve or be related to other people. Like when you’re hanging out with a friend at their house, getting invited to stay for dinner — or maybe even a sleepover if it was a weekend, calling home to ask if it was okay, and being told “yes”. Those feelings of possibility and what opportunities have now been opened up to you are priceless. Oh my gosh, or talking to your crush. It could be a mundane conversation about a group project you both were on for school, or a simple “hi” with a smile in the hallways, but inside you’re carebear-staring with rainbows of light. You are one hundred percent present and absolutely soaking up that moment.
Joy can also be little, maybe labelled as something you find satisfying. I feel it when a jigsaw puzzle piece you think should fit into a specific spot slides in perfectly with the other pieces, almost “clicking” as it settles in place. The look and feel when I find clothes that fit and sit on my not-so-average body the way they’re supposed to. Getting real, physical snail mail from someone you know! Paper correspondence that isn’t a bill or junk? Weird, I know. That’s what makes it special.
That’s the magic of joy — what brings it to you can evolve and change, what it does for you is the same, and it’s different for each of us. So we can practice finding the moments, and surround ourselves with community, that move our happiness barometers in the right direction. We live in a world of the daily grind and distractions; but if we’re speeding through life, waiting or trying to reach “happy”, we’re missing the good parts. We’re missing the joy.
We’ve all fantasized about winning the Lotto. I’d buy that Audi e-tron SUV. Hire a painter to do the upstairs bathrooms. Subscribe to a bunch of magazines and newspapers printed on real paper. I’d become an outrageous restaurant tipper. Yet, what I’d do with the cash is set up music and arts programs in towns that need them desperately. I’m an old jock, but I’ve noticed that athletic programs always manage to find a way.
After years as a teacher, I’ve seen too many talented kids in the arts who don’t get nurtured. That’d be a great thing to do with a hundred million. Winning the Lotto would make me happy. Putting the money to work for others? That would bring me joy.
A while back, I put together a meme: I am rarely happy. I am nearly always joyful. I think that hits on the difference. When my MSU Spartans took down UM on October 30, 37-33, I was pretty damn happy. How happy? So happy that Aaron and I did quick shots of bourbon, ran out into the backyard, and sang the MSU fight song at the top of our lungs. That happy.
Sunday, I watched the Detroit Lions get demolished by the Philadelphia Eagles. A Philly player went to Detroit’s MLK High School. He bought 40 tickets, gave them to his old coach, paid for the bus and snacks and swag so that the kids on his old school team could have an incredible Sunday out. That filled me with joy.
Joy is soulful, rich, and deep. Joy is everlasting.
And always remember – Hugs bring joy.