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Where Do You Find Joy?

A lot has been happening lately, and from my perspective, not a lot of it is good. It can be hard in times like these not to feel overwhelmed or despairing. You may also find yourself looking to food and other means of comfort more often than before.

And so, it might seem like a strange time to talk about joy.

Then again, perhaps that makes this the perfect time to talk about it.

Why joy?

I started thinking about this after listening to an episode of On Being when Krista Tippett interviewed Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. Johnson is a marine biologist and co-author of the anthology All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis.

Like many doing climate work, Johnson knows how difficult these times are, and she’s well aware of the dire possibilities that lay ahead.

And yet, that’s not the possibility she focuses on. She prefers to let wonder and joy and love guide her. As she says, “[This] idea that we can be motivated by love… it’s just the more delightful way to approach something that is the work of our lifetimes….”

It was such a refreshing way of thinking about it, and a wonderful reminder of how much more powerful it can be to run towards something rather than away from it.

Guilt-free joy

Of course, when so many bad things are happening – mass shootings, droughts, wildfires, wars, and more – you might feel guilty about wanting to do something that will make you happy.

This is something I’ve struggled with, and oddly, it can prompt me to overeat. After all, even if I enjoy the taste of the food, it’s not really letting myself feel joy because I need food to live. And then if I overeat, I’ll feel miserable anyway, which counteracts any pleasure I might have felt – and so I don’t have to feel guilty about enjoying the food.

But in The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss, Mary-Frances O’Connor explains why it can be helpful to engage in mood-boosting activities when you’re feeling negative emotions. She was talking about grief, but I think the same principle applies to other emotions that might weigh you down.

“Ironically, engaging in activities that typically raise positive emotions, such as going to a party or watching some form of entertainment, are actually more effective at reducing sadness and grief. The ‘undoing’ of negative emotions with positive emotions works because positive emotions change cognitive and psychological states. Positive emotions broaden people’s attention, encourage creative thinking, and expand people’s coping toolkit….” (p. 136)

In other words, you’ll be better able to deal with whatever is making you sad, angry, stressed, or otherwise upset if you let yourself do something fun and joyful.

But because our society doesn’t consider having fun the “right” thing to do in difficult times, many people feel guilty at even the thought of having fun and never go ahead with it.

We all know that society exerts a powerful influence, but in this case, try to focus instead on knowing that finding moments of joy will help you with whatever else is happening – and then go for it without guilt.

Mindfulness and joy

Each of us will find joy in our own ways, but one thing I’ve found that always helps is being mindful. No matter what I’m doing, if I’m distracted by worrying about tomorrow or fretting about yesterday, I won’t be able to enjoy myself.

This is one of the reasons I find joy in going to Baxter State Park. Because it’s out of internet and cell phone range, and because it’s so timeless, it helps me be in the moment.

On my recent trip, for example, I found peace and contentment looking at Roaring Brook rippling over stones in the early morning light.

I was amused by listening to the conversations of ravens. And I was so happy to see a big bull moose in Sandy Stream Pond.

Not that you have to go to the middle of the woods to find joy. Maybe you find it taking your first sip of coffee in the morning… reading to your kids before bed… doing work that matters to you… watching your favorite show or movie… completing a puzzle… or so many other things.

The key is to pay attention, look for those moments, and savor them. They may not last long, but they’ll feed you in ways food can’t and give you a boost to tackle the less joyful things.

Embrace your joy

I often envy my cats, who seem to feel joy (or something like it) daily, in sunbeams and snuggles and cat treats and naps, all while blissfully unaware of what else is going on in the world.

Then I realize that while I can’t forget about everything else, I can still find joy in small (or large) things. This doesn’t mean I don’t care about what’s going on – it’s just reminding me why it’s important not to give up or let myself be overwhelmed.

I hope you, too, can find your moments of joy and embrace them wholeheartedly.


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