The following is a discussion I am leading on November 20th at Erie County Community College around the practice of Joy
Finding the Joy in the Every Day
A Presentation for EC3 Lunch and Learn
Rob Giannamore, MDiv, MS, LPC
The late Calypso poet Jimmy Buffett writes in his song “Barefoot Children” that “the wrinkles only go where the smiles have been”. Today, I want to talk about a topic that I have written several posts on over the years, joy. I will be looking at three aspects: The psychology of joy, the practice of joy and finding joy when we are struggling to find meaning in a complicated world.
The Psychology/ Philosophy of Joy
In my line of work, there is a concept known as positive psychology. “Positive psychology is a branch of psychology focused on the character strengths and behaviors that allow individuals to build a life of meaning and purpose—to move beyond surviving to flourishing” (Psychology Today). Not only have I trained as a therapist, but also as a philosopher, theologian and minister. The study and understanding of the strengths and behaviors that allow individuals to build a life of meaning and purpose can not only be seen in positive psychology but in the existential philosophers of Nietzche and Kierkegaard and the Enlightenment philosopher, Emmanuel Kant. The Indic religions almost completely base their philosophical existence around building a life of meaning.
Martin Seligman is a common name associated with Positive Psychology. He proposes the PEMA model: positive emotions, engagement (with a project, for instance), positive relationships, meaning, and accomplishment/achievement. “PERMA is not the first or only model of well-being”(Psychology Today).
In my practice as a therapist, I tend to lean more into Eastern and Western philosophical practices to understand meaning. When helping someone cultivate more positive emotions though, I tend to lean into Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs which posits that for us to achieve self-worth and self-actualization, we need to encounter a sense of safety in our environment.
When trying to study joy from a psychological perspective, interestingly, Psychologists find a gap in the definition. I believe, in part because joy is a state of being that is subjective and one that cannot be objectively measured by any specific statistical tools.
Joy involves a state of positive affect
According to Mathew Johnson (Johnson, 2019), joy involves a “state of positive affect, in which one experiences feelings of freedom, safety and ease”. Joy can change our perception and how we move physically. When we engage in activities that bring us joy, according to Johnson, it “provides the individual with the opportunity to learn new cognitive and behavioral skills and forge new social relationships and skills, which enhances resilience to future obstacles or threats” (Johnson, 2019).
Finally, Nietzche offers that the “process of becoming, is rife with struggle and difficulty — something he considered essential to a fulfilling life. (A century later, C.S. Lewis would write: “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.”) Nietzsche considers the uncomfortable but necessary rupture that precipitates this breakthrough of the free spirit, and the fine line between constructive and destructive rebellion”(Popova, n.d.).
The Practice of Joy
As a practice, Joy can enhance happiness and it balances or counters sadness and sorrow. Mary Ann and Frederic Brussat offer that “an essential spiritual practice growing out of faith, grace, gratitude, hope, and love. It is the pure and simple delight in being alive. “Joy is our elated response to feelings of happiness, experiences of pleasure, and awareness of abundance.” (“Joy as a Spiritual Practice | Spirituality & Practice”) It is also the deep satisfaction we know when we are able to serve others and be glad for their good fortune.” (Brussatt).
“Mudita is a word from Sanskrit and Pali that has no counterpart in English.” (“OP-ED | What the World Needs Now Is ‘Mudita’ – My Word of the Year for …”) “It means sympathetic or unselfish joy, or joy in the good fortune of others.” (“Mudita: The Buddhist Practice of Sympathetic Joy – Learn Religions”)
Defining Mudita, we might consider its opposites. One of those is jealousy. Another is schadenfreude, a word frequently borrowed from German that means taking pleasure in the misfortune of others. Obviously, both emotions are marked by selfishness and malice. Cultivating Mudita is the antidote to both.
Mudita is described as an inner wellspring of joy that is always available, in all circumstances. It is extended to all beings, not just to those close to you. In the Mettam Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 46.54) the Buddha said, “I declare that the heart’s release by sympathetic joy has the sphere of infinite consciousness for its excellence.”
Sometimes English-speaking teachers broaden the definition of Mudita to include “empathy.”
The Brussat’s offer that we can invite Joy into your life by staging celebrations. A practice that I began to engage in a few years ago was simply seeing moments around me as times of celebration and cultivating gratitude for the moment that has arisen.
The Brussat’s https://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/practices/alphabet/view/17/joyoffer these daily reminders, vows and cues to begin to cultivate more joy into your life:
- Passing a smiling person on the street is my cue to practice joy.
- Whenever I see people dancing at a party, I am reminded to release the joy that resides in me.
- Knowing how much pleasure there is in making others happy, I vow to practice joy.
Sometimes life doesn’t go as planned. For many, the next few months which mark celebrations of joy and family are periods of darkness and despair. If this is you, seek help. In suffering, there is pain but there is also the potential for growth and in this growth comes joy. We begin to experience joy as we look at the way points of our journey and see where we have been and what we have become.
In the case of sadness, which is intricately linked to depression, it causes the individual to stop having full awareness and care of their body. We talk about this as the head-heart connection. In my practice as a clinician and a modern contemplative, I focus a lot of my time on teaching techniques of mindfulness to help one reengage in cultivating a renewed awareness of self and their bodies. You too can do this. The simplest practice is a body scan (take participants through a practice). Have participants start with a slightly distressing thought, something that puts them at a 5 on a scale of 0 – 10 where 10 is most intense. Then take them through another practice, this time, a happy/pleasant thought that puts them at an 8-10 on the same scale.
Again, from Nietzche, we can ponder these words:
“The most virulent illnesses are often the ones that are most useful for mankind. They are like seedbeds out of which new types of men and women come forth.”
This begs the question, can there be growth in suffering?
There is much talk in my field about post-traumatic stress but today, I want to talk about post traumatic growth. The term post traumatic growth was originally coined by the psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, who interviewed many people who had suffered traumatic life-events such as bereavement, serious illness (such as cancer), housefires, combat and becoming refugees. In their research, it was discovered that for these people that experienced these horrific experiences, they were spurred on to personal development as they worked through their traumas. As a clinician, I have found this to be observed as well.
According to Steve Taylor,
They gained new inner strength and discovered skills and abilities they never knew they possessed. They became more confident and appreciative of life, particularly of the “small things” that they used to take for granted. They became more compassionate for the sufferings of others, and more comfortable with intimacy so that they had deeper and more satisfying relationships. One of the most common changes was that they developed a more philosophical or spiritual attitude to life. In Tedeschi and Caohoun’s words, their suffering led them to a “deeper level of awareness.”(Taylor, 2011)
Therapy is the best place to start when you have gone through some tough stuff. I am a behaviorist and I often tell folks that it takes at least 18 months to work through just one of the issues you are dealing with. As you can imagine, many people come in these days with complex or multiple traumas that become onion layers with different start points, often resulting in the need for long term therapy, with my longest clients with me for five years now.
Brussat (n.d.). Joy. Spirituality and Practice. Retrieved October 22, 2023, from https://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/practices/alphabet/view/17/joy
Johnson, Matthew (2020) Joy: a review of the literature and suggestions for future directions, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 15:1, 5-24, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2019.1685581
[Mailboat Records]. (2020, July 4). Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band “Down at the Lah De Dah” (Official Music Video) [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LEp3TcMI9q8
O’Brien, Barbara. (2021, September 1). Mudita: The Buddhist Practice of Sympathetic Joy. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/mudita-sympathetic-joy-449704
Popova , M. (n.d.). Nietzsche on the Journey of Becoming and What It Means to Be a Free Spirit. The Marginalian. Retrieved October 22, 2023, from https://www.themarginalian.org/2015/10/15/nietzsche-free-spirits/
(n.d.). Positive Psychology. Psychology Today. Retrieved October 21, 2023, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/positive-psychology
Taylor, S. (2011, November 4). Can Suffering Make Us Stronger? Psychology Today. Retrieved October 22, 2023, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/out-the-darkness/201111/can-suffering-make-us-stronger