When was the last time you fully experienced joy? I don't mean a happy moment or a day of ready smiles or even a knee-slapping evening with friends.
I'm talking the intense, clarifying, vulnerable experience of joy. The emotion that, in order to be experienced in its fullest, requires us to be at our most emotionally mature.
As sociologist Brene Brown writes in Daring Greatly, "Having spent several years studying what it means to feel joyful, I'd argue that joy is probably the most difficult emotion to really feel."
Yet if we want to live a rich life - and fully pursue meaningful work - we must learn to experience joy. In all its powerful, overwhelming, humbling force.
Joy versus Pleasure
First, we must distinguish between the easy emotion of pleasure and the difficult emotion of joy, which are too often used interchangeably.
"A lot of people seem to feel that joy is only the most intense version of pleasure, arrived at by the same road - you simply have to go a little further down the track. That has not been my experience." - author Zadie Smith in The New York Review of Books
Smith goes on to note that joy is a far more complex emotion than pleasure, and may even involve some negative components, including terror, pain and delight.
Joy, as far as I can tell, is the full acceptance of the emotion of the present moment, without making demands about exactly what that emotional moment entails.
This matches Eckhart Tolle's take on joy versus pleasure:
"Pleasure is always derived from something outside you, whereas joy arises from within." - Eckhart Tolle
In other words, pleasure comes to us by chance, but joy comes to us by choice.
Why Joy Scares Us
This choice, however, is not easy to make.
According to Brene Brown in Daring Greatly, joy involves great "uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure."
To guard against this sense of vulnerability, she found that many of us experience "foreboding joy," or planning for disaster. About 80% of the people she interviewed had an experience of simultaneously experiencing great joy and being flooded with terrible images of that moment being taken away.
Brown explains foreboding joy this way:
"We're trying to beat vulnerability to the punch. We don't want to be blindsided by hurt. We don't want to be caught off-guard, so we literally practice being devastated or never move from self-elected disappointment."
She goes on to describe the source of foreboding joy:
"Scarcity and fear drive foreboding joy. We're afraid that the feeling of joy won't last, or that there won't be enough, or that the transition to disappointment will be too difficult. We've learned that giving in to joy is, at best, setting ourselves up for disappointment and, at worst, inviting disaster. And we struggle with the worthiness issue. Do we deserve our joy, given our inadequacies and imperfections? What about the starving children and the war-ravaged world? Who are we to be joyful?"
We must learn to get past this, both for the sake of our lives as a whole and for the sort of work we strive to create on this site.
Why Accepting Joy is Key to Meaningful Work
One of the most powerful of those rewards is joy.
Brene Brown found that one of the times people feel most vulnerable and experience foreboding joy at its highest is when they are actively loving their jobs.
This makes sense since there's little more temporary in life than work. The job that provides us purpose and identity can be stripped from us in an instant due to economic downturns, a fickle boss, or other factors beyond our control.
Yet we have no choice but to embrace this reality: if we don't allow ourselves to experience joy in its full force, we're subjected to all the challenges of the meaningful work without its most powerful rewards, making us prime candidates for burnout.
How sad to move on from the job or field not because it was a poor fit, but because we didn't let the experience get under our skin.
How to Accept Joy in Its Full Force
So what can we do to learn to accept joy?
According to Brown, gratitude is the great "antidote to foreboding joy."
"If the opposite of scarcity is enough, then practicing gratitude is how we acknowledge that there's enough and that we're enough." - Brene Brown
Some of her suggestions for practicing gratitude include:
- Keeping a gratitude journal.
- Starting a gratitude jar.
- Recognizing joy in the small, ordinary moments, where joy tends to be housed.
- Literally saying to yourself, as Brown does, "vulnerability, vulnerability" when you feel foreboding joy strike. Then forcing yourself to think, "I'm grateful for..." and filling in the blank genuinely.
- Recognizing and accepting that we can never prepare for loss and it's a waste of time, effort, and good moments to do so.
The quotation that struck me the most from the entirety of Brown's Daring Greatly spoke to that last point:
"I used to think that the best way to go through life was to expect the worst. That way, if it happened, you were prepared, and if it didn't happen, you were pleasantly surprised. Then I was in a car accident and my wife was killed. Needless to say, expecting the worst didn't prepare me at all. And worse, I still grieve for all of those wonderful moments we shared that I didn't fully enjoy."
Let that not be us. This holiday season, lean into your joy. There's no better time to start embracing the good things in life and work than when the world is celebrating alongside us.
Do you know someone who has difficulty accepting joy in their lives? Then please pass this article along.
Now I want to hear from you: How do you allow yourself to experience joy in its full force? Do you have any gratitude practices that help with this process?
Photo Credit: Pink Sherbet Photography