Thoughts on Cultivating Joy

I’ve been working on noticing joy since reading The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, a weeklong conversation between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu facilitated by Douglas Abrams.  What follows are some of my observations and experiences on this journey. 

Let me say it again.  I’ve been working on noticing joy. I didn’t say I’ve been trying to choose joy.  Rather, I’ve been intentionally cultivating the skills that enable me to feel embodied joy.  And strangely enough (or at least strangely to me) joy comes more easily and frequently than I ever would have guessed. 

In The Book of Joy, Desmond Tutu says if you set out to be joyful – you won’t end up being joyful. The same goes for thinking I can just decide I’m going to feel joy on demand.  I might be able to put on a fake smile and a cheery demeanor, like a change of clothes, but that’s not joy.  Changing clothes doesn’t change who I am or what I’m feeling. If I expect a change of clothes to fill me with joy, I’m going to be sorely disappointed. 

So what is joy? And what are the skills I can cultivate that will enable me to notice it when it’s right in front of me ready to be noticed. First, what is joy?

What is Joy?

If you had asked me what joy is a a year ago, I probably would have described His Holiness the Dalai Lama or Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  While their joy is hard to describe, they project serenity and contentment. They seem fully present and genuinely attentive to others. They share the wisdom that comes with finding the joy within pain, each in their own way. The Archbishop is practical and plain-spoken while the Dalai Lama has an unpretentious eloquence.  A sense of peace emanates from their being even as their faces light up in smiles or erupt in uncontained laughter. To me, each of them embodies joy. They feel joy in their body, mind and soul.

And how do I know this never having met them?  I can feel it even though I only know them from television interviews, podcasts and their writing. I cannot begin to imagine what I would feel in their presence.  I feel the same way when I read about Jesus or Gandhi and Nelson Mandela in his later years.  It helps that I’ve met a few people with this kind of joy in person.  But I digress.  

If you had asked me whether I might ever be that kind of joyful, I would have said “I take satisfaction in fleeting glimpses here and there. But “true” joy – the kind of joy the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu have — is beyond my imagination.” And the fleeting glimpses – often leave me wanting, even craving, more.  

What I’ve learned as I read The Book of Joy is there are feelings of joy in everyday life. These come and go. And there are lasting states of joy.  Both are important.  To help us understand the difference, Abrams cites research listing 12 feelings of joy and three states of joy. These lists give me language to understand the complexity and subtleties of what the book calls “the kingdom of joy.”  

Feelings of Joy

I find researcher Paul Ekman’s 12 feelings of joy useful. It gives me a concrete starting place in my journey to cultivate joy.  I need to focus on the low hanging fruit to give me sustenance for the lifelong practice of living in a state of joy.

  • Pleasure of the five senses
  • Amusement from a chuckle to a belly laugh
  • Contentment, a calmer kind of satisfaction
  • Excitement in response to novelty or challenge
  • Relief following on another emotion, such as fear, anxiety or even pleasure)
  • Wonder before something astonishing and admirable
  • Ecstasy or bliss transporting us outside ourselves
  • Exultation at having accomplished a difficult or daring task
  • Radiant pride when our children earn a special honor
  • Unhealthy jubilation or schadenfreude, relishing in someone else’s suffering
  • Elevation from having witnessed an act of kindness, generosity or compassion
  • Gratitude the appreciation of a selfless act of which one is the beneficiary

Feelings of joy can span from pleasure of others’ good fortune to pleasure in the misfortune of others, or schadenfreude, Abrams writes. He goes on saying, joy is more than mere pleasure.  A new mother feels relief, wonder and ecstasy.  Watching a child who struggled in school graduate brings up not only radiant pride but also relief.  Witnessing your child give his allowance to the food bank leads to wonder, radiant pride, elevation and gratitude for validation that you might have done something right as a parent.

My Thoughts on Feelings of Joy

Trying to cultivate Eckhart’s feelings of joy (except schadenfreude), I realized five truths about myself, my obstacles to feeling joy and how I’m starting to cultivate practices that move me beyond the obstacles to joy.

First, I realized I have multiple situations that can lead to feelings of joy every day. I laugh. I accomplish things. I am thankful. I see flowers and birds.  I relish a challenge.  But something is blocking the embodied feelings of joy. 

Second, I realized my understanding of the nature of joy is too narrow and my expectations too high. Intellectually, I know feelings of joy result from everyday experiences but in my heart I expect joy to be something extraordinary, breath-taking and rare.  I am working on broadening my understanding to savor feelings of joy in the everyday happenings of life and letting go of the expectation that I need to be in some exalted state of joy to experience joy. I can cultivate both fleeting feelings of joy and lasting qualities of joy simultaneously in hopes that one will feed the other and vice versa.

Third, I realized I often take everyday moments that could bring me joy for granted, a subtle but beautiful sunset, learning a new skill, witnessing a teenager helping a senior cross a busy street, someone giving me their place in line at the grocery store, and on and on.  Sometimes I fail to notice them at all, too distracted by my to-do lists, problems to be solved, things that happened at work. When I do notice them, I often discount them, telling myself it’s nothing to get excited about. On this journey, I’m trying to notice the everyday moments and recognize how each one is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience joy.

Fourth, I realized that even when I notice the everyday moments I often miss the joy. It’s there for me to feel but I don’t take the time to feel it. I am trying to pause – to create the space — after I have a special everyday experience to feel the contentment, the wonder, the exultation, the gratitude in the moment it happens. Put differently, I am trying to savor the moment.

Feeling the feeling of joy in the moment it happens differs from remembering it later and intellectually naming it “joy.”  The memory may be pleasurable but it is not the embodied feeling of joy. And sometimes intellectualizing it can create a feeling of longing or regret, wishing I had taken the time to savor the feeling of joy when I had the chance, which can actually be painful.   

Fifth, I realized I have to give myself permission to risk feeling joy, knowing these feelings come and go. Joy in everyday experiences comes and goes with each passing moment.  I am working on accepting this reality without craving more or judging myself deficient when the feeling of joy passes.

Lasting States of Joy

One of the fundamental secrets of being in a state of joy is going beyond my own self-focus or self-centeredness, explains the Dalai Lama.  Cultivating my own joy has benefits not just for me but also for others in my life. When I am able to move beyond my own pain and suffering, I am more available to others. In contrast, suffering causes me to be extremely self-focused and leaves little energy and attention for others. 

Scientist, writer and monk Mathieu Ricard describes three “exalted states of joy.”  These are:

  • Rejoicing in someone else’s happiness
  • Delight or enchantment, a shining kind of contentment
  • Spiritual radiance, a serene joy born from deep well-being and benevolence

When I first saw this list I was confused.  Ricard called them “exalted states of joy.”  To me, exalted means out of reach or beyond my capacity to cultivate or better than. Yet, the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu clearly believe we can develop skills to cultivate joy as a state of being and while it’s subtle I think they are saying feelings of joy contribute to states of joy.  

I also was surprised at what seemed to be missing.  How could love, compassion, generosity and kindness not make the list?  It took me a while to figure out “benevolence” captures these missing states of joy. And I was delighted to discover the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu would devote hours of discussion to these ways we connect with others and how they lead us to joy as a state of being.

Joy: A Way of Approaching the World

The state of joy is a way of approaching the world. Tutu says, “. . . our greatest joy is when we seek to do good for others . . . . It’s how we are made . . . . We’re wired to be compassionate,” to love, to be generous and kind (p. 59)

Wow!  It sounds easy.  But what if I do good for others for the “wrong” reasons?  Maybe I believe I have to earn love and acceptance or I’m co-dependent and need to be needed in order to feel worthy. Perhaps I do good to feed my ego and improve my social status.  What if I do good for others out of reluctant obligation focusing on my sacrifice? What if I do so much good for others that I sacrifice my mental and physical health?  I don’t think that’s what the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu have in mind.   

Tutu explains how our interconnection with other humans is fundamental to our being, how being compassionate, kind and generous to others benefits all.  When we do good for others out of genuine concern for their well-being, the benefit comes back to us in joy. When we do good for others to meet our own self-absorbed needs, we will inevitably be disappointed.  

“We shrivel when we are not able to interact. We depend on others to be fully who we are . . . . The concept of Ubuntu says a person is a person through other persons.  Ubuntu says when I have a small piece of bread; it is for my benefit that I share it with you . . . . In a very real sense we’re meant for a very profound complementarity . . . . I could not walk as a human being. I could not think as a human being. I could not speak without having learned it from other human beings. I learned to be a human being from other human beings. We belong to this delicate network.” (p. 60).

“One individual, no matter how powerful, how clever, cannot survive without other human beings.” (p 61) To survive, I have to allow myself to be vulnerable, to trust.  How do I cultivate trust? I show a genuine sense of concern for others’ well-being. Then trust will come.

Cultivating Joy as a State of Mind

Wow, indeed.  This is hard stuff to wrap my head around in the abstract.  I need some concrete skills to make this real. 

A study identifies three factors that seem to have the greatest influence on increasing happiness: our ability to reframe our situation more positively, our ability to experience gratitude and our choice to be kind & generous (p. 49).  Based on my reading of the book as well as my life experience, I came up with a list of nine skills (or practices) that help me strengthen these abilities.

First, I practice being mindfully present in this very moment in all I do (as much as possible).  When I notice myself worrying about the future or rehashing the past, I bring my attention back to what’s going on right this second both in my mind and body and my actions, how they affect others and my surroundings.

Second, I meditate to practice bringing my attention back to the present moment, back to my body and breath that exist only in the here and now.

Third, I practice acceptance of what is – both pain and joy.  When painful things happen – as they inevitably will – I practice self-compassion.  I reframe my experience of pain to include the pain all humans share.

Fourth, I practice noticing my thoughts, emotions and motivations as they are happening to discern what cultivates joy and what stands in the way of joy. 

  • When I notice selfish or self-centered motivations,  I reframe (or expand) my motivation to focus on concern for the well-being of all humanity
  • When I notice emotions that stand in the way of joy (e.g., fear, anger, loneliness, envy), I determine what part of the emotion naturally flows out of my pain and what part of the emotion is self-centered suffering – exacerbated and sustained by negative thoughts.  I try to be compassionate toward the natural emotion and to reframe the negative thoughts that feed my self-centered suffering into feelings of genuine concern for others – compassion, generosity and kindness. 
  • When I notice judgments, I reframe them into acceptance of what is and ask myself open-ended, curious questions to better understand my discomfort.
  • When I notice unrealistic expectations, craving, grasping or striving – wanting things to be different than they are — I reframe them into acceptance, not giving up or abdicating responsibility for doing better in the future but acceptance of what is in this very moment.

Fifth, I practice noticing feelings of joy – first noticing everyday moments that elicit joy, then naming the feeling of joy (e.g., wonder, relief, exultation, pleasure and amusement) and pausing to savor it.

Sixth, I practice gratitude not so much for what has been given to me or what I have accomplished but the opportunities I have been given to be compassionate, kind, loving and generous, for the simple fact that I am alive, for my shared humanity with others on this Earth.

Seventh, I practice allowing myself to be vulnerable to others as I want them to be vulnerable with me in order to cultivate mutual trust

Eighth, I practice taking pleasure in the happiness of others

Ninth, I practice choosing kindness, compassion and generosity out of genuine concern for others

Joy Counters Injustice and Inequality

“What does our own joy have to do with countering injustice and inequality?  What does our happiness have to do with addressing the suffering of the world?  In short, the more we heal our own pain, the more we can turn to the pain of others . . . . And the way we heal our own pain is actually by turning to the pain of others.  The more we turn toward others, the more joy we experience and the more joy we experience the more we can bring joy to others. 

“The goal is not just to create joy for ourselves but to be a reservoir of joy, an oasis of peace, a pool of serenity that can ripple out to all around you.  Joy is in fact contagious.  As is love, compassion and generosity . . . . we cannot hope to make the world a better, happier place if we do not also aspire for this in our own lives” (p. 63).

A Final Thought to Myself and Others

This sounds like a lot to remember and do.  The good news is you and I can cultivate joy anywhere, anytime.  Joy is always available to us, if we just notice.  So let’s practice – it gets easier, more automatic, over time.  When you and I miss an opportunity for joy, it’s a reminder we all are human.  The next opportunity for joy is available now.

A Final, Final Note

As she read my draft blog, my partner started singing this song, which I think captures the essence of feeling joy in others’ happiness.

From Song for Judith by Judy Colliins

“Open the door and come on in
I’m so glad to see my friend
You’re like a rainbow coming around the bend
And when I see you happy
Well, it sets my heart free
I’d like to be as good a friend to you
As you are to me”

Judy Collins singing Song for Judith

Categories mindfulness
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close