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The Significance and Simple Pleasure of Joy

Posted: December 29, 2020 by Karen Neri, JD, MA

There have been plenty of moments when I have wanted 2020 to end. For as many of those moments I have felt, I also wanted the year to extend longer in hopes of better circumstances, more hopeful news or positive experiences for the people around me, folx within the communities or institutions I am part of, and for myself. There has been a great deal of loss and pain this year, not to mention, suffering. The personal and collective toll of it all are hard to deny. It has made me reflect further on the concept of joy. Can we find joy amidst the existence of our pain and suffering? How does joy differ from happiness? Why would joy be something that is important to find right now?

There is an old Buddhist saying that has been attributed to writer Haruki Murakami as a quote – “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” This refers to the idea that there is a distinction between pain and suffering. Pain is what shows up in everyday in life – physically, biologically, and socially. We encounter illnesses, injustices, or inequities, and we see pain. Suffering, on the other hand, is how we react to the existence of this pain. Suffering is the state that reflects our interpretation of the pain, and the tension we may feel in not experiencing what is desired.

In, The Book of Joy, the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmund Tutu discussed being able to attain joy despite adversity or tragedy. According to the Dalai Lama, joy is bigger than happiness because whereas joy can be an enduring and lasting state, happiness is “dependent on external circumstances”. Joy comes from within where the person possesses a joyful mental state that is enduring and rooted in concern for the well-being of all beings (compassion, love and generosity). As Archbishop Desmund Tutus has been quoted to state “It’s wonderful to discover that what we want is not actually happiness. It is not actually what I would speak of. I would speak of joy. Joy subsumes happiness. Joy is the far greater thing.”

As it turns out, we can transform our suffering into joy. Joy can be present in the midst of our suffering when we can recognize that although pain and suffering is part of our human experience, we can choose how we respond to our pain. When we can exercise compassion such as turning towards others when we are suffering and allow ourselves to feel sadness paving the way for self-reflection, we invite joy to show up. Sadness, in particular, according to the Archbishop leads us to empathy, compassion and the recognition of our need for one another.

I see transforming our suffering into joy as a process that can be difficult and can take time. Acknowledging both our pain and suffering brings with it the mixture of negative emotions, including rage, anger, or disgust in addition to sadness. When these difficult, gut-wrenching, or heartbreaking emotions take center stage, they can be overwhelming and burdensome for us to linger in. Being in this space has the tendency to activate our stress response, and in turn, our protective mechanisms. For many of us, this can look like avoidance, escape, control, self-blame, or anger directed at other people. Yet, it is in embracing our emotions from pain where we can begin to find ease and tame the discomfort of our emotions. This is also the place where we can start to make sense of our suffering, create new meaning, and turn to supportive friends, family or colleagues for comfort. It is in our vulnerability and in the care of people when we can start to see joy emerge from our suffering, particularly as we experience a new or renewed purpose.

But how do we know it is joy we are feeling, and not happiness?

There is an author and designer by the name of Ingrid Fetell Lee, who from her research described joy as an “intense, momentary experience of positive emotion; one that makes us smile and laugh. . .” compared to happiness, which she mentioned as something that “measures how good we feel over time.” Joy is a present moment experience we feel from the inside. In her work, she was able to connect that it is in the aesthetics – our sensations of joy in which we can experience this intangible feeling from tangible things.

It would seem that joy exist not just in us choosing to respond differently to our pain, in electing compassion, and in welcoming our emotions, but in the spaces or the environment around us. Ingrid tells us that joy can be found when we sense lightness, multiplicity, patterns, pop of color, or abundance. In this way, we can resource our physical environment for joy. She relays that we have the impulse to seek out joy in our surroundings because it is directly connected to our survival. She states that “the drive towards joy is the drive towards life.” In light of our divisive world with various aspects of our current social environment or institutions needing reform, this latter statement of hers reminded me of why it has been said that joy and social change go hand in hand; why joy and abolitionism cannot be separated.

Abolitionist teacher and author, Bettina Love, relays that joy is just as crucial for social change and justice. Bettina states in We Want to Do More Than Survive, “Finding joy in the midst of pain and trauma is the fight to be fully human. A revolutionary spirit that embraces joy, self-care, and love is moving towards wholeness. Acknowledging joy is to make yourself aware of your humanity, creativity, self-determination, power, and ability to love abundantly. Freedom dreams are brought to life through joy and love of dark people’s light.” Joy, in terms of Black joy, means to embrace your humanity in the face of oppression, to reclaim your identity and acknowledge that you have inherited “grit and zest” from a long line of survivors. It is essentially empathy and compassion towards oneself and others in a similar journey; in so doing, it is both an act of resistance and healing.

When our days can be filled with more struggles and heaviness, it is all the more important to make room for joy. To find joy in the midst of suffering is to bring yourself into your full humanity – into compassion, love, and connection with people and the environment. To intentionally make room to find joy is to choose life despite our adversity and tragedy.

Below is a short reminder of ways to feel joy in the presence of pain and suffering:

- Bear witness to other people’s joy – your family, friends, or colleagues.

- Cultivate mindfulness. Purposefully bring your whole mind, heart, body, and spirit to the present moment without judgment.

- Seek out and turn to comforting places, people, or sentient beings. For example, healing spaces, a supportive loved one, your ancestors, trusted colleagues, a walk in the woods, your pup, or an image of a sandy beach.

- Surround yourself with tangible objects or spaces that give a sense of lightness, multiplicity, patterns, pop of color, or abundance. For example, confetti, sparkles, a colorful wall, multiple round shapes, natural light, or furnishings that looks like starbursts or fireworks.
Gratitude attracts joy. Practice it daily.

- Savor small moments you are reminded of your identity or of life. For example, your cultural food, indigenous music, a hot cup of coffee, or an experience of nature such as a flower blooming, the warmth of the sun on your skin, and the rain.

- Find time to experience playfulness. Immerse yourself in spaces or activities where silliness is the focus, your laughter is present, and you are surrounded by glorious smiles.

- When it feels like you are struggling the most, carry out acts of compassion towards yourself and other people. Offer love, be loved, and be generous. Repeat.

Tags: mood and feelings

Karen Neri, JD, MA (she/her)

Licensed Professional Counselor

National Certified Counselor

Relationships are painfully beautiful. Often the birthplace of love, joy and belonging, it can also be a source of pain and suffering.

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