Better Than Happiness—Finding Joy

How can we bring more joy into our lives?

It’s one thing to feel joy during the holidays when we have moments of gratitude and share kindness with the world. But how do we find joy when the new year ushers in stacks of bills to pay, overdue tasks, and a list of pressing problems?

Fortunately, joy is not seasonal and doesn’t depend on feeling good. For me, happiness comes and goes with my moods and doesn’t stick around when life becomes stressful or dark. Joy, on the other hand, has a more stately presence, inviting me to open my heart while offering a sampling of wonders I might have otherwise overlooked.

Happiness and sadness may cancel each other out, but joy is willing to share the stage with sorrow. Even if I’m feeling depressed, I can rejoice in the sight of a leaf etched in ice, news that a local dog was found alive in a ravine, or a friend’s unexpected kindness. I may cry, but tears and joy travel well together.

In 2015, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his Holiness the Dalai Lama met in Dharamsala, India, to explore how to find joy during times that feel chaotic, difficult, and dark. Their five days of conversation were chronicled in The Book of Joy. Both men exude joy through the twinkle in their eyes, humor, and deep compassion for others. Yet both have known extraordinary pain, as they witnessed their lives put at risk, their homelands torn apart, and their countrymen and women killed.

The two men don’t depend on good news to feel joy. Through their mindsets and practices, they cultivate inner landscapes where seeds of joy can bloom. They live with open hearts, act with compassion, and serve others. They strive to let go of joy-busters like envy, regret, and excess anger.

Fortunately, we don’t have to travel to Dharamsala to see examples of people finding, through their compassionate service, joy in times of tragedy. Nancy Soltes is a Gold Star mother who lost her eldest son in the Iraq war. Even in her darkest times of grieving, she knew her grandchildren deserved joy in their lives, and she worked to find what she could share with them. She discovered that, as she says,  “bringing joy to others helps everyone.” Now she’s curating a book of stories full of compassionate wisdom she hopes will help other Gold Star mothers survive the loss of their sons and daughters to war.

Susan Partnow was enjoying an exhilarating encore career teaching compassionate listening and running global citizen journeys when her husband was diagnosed with a severe cancer. Even though the couple was amicably separated, Susan felt deeply called to be at his side and help him recover and deal with the physical consequences of his disease. In stepping into her new role, she experienced each day as meaningful and purposeful, and therefore joyful, even if difficult. Susan knew she was doing what she was meant to do, and her experiences made her feel alive, energized, and attuned to life.

If you want to invite more joy into your life, here are a few practices that can open the door:

Laugh more. Both the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu are mischievous comics. Belly laughing can shake up your system, clear your pipes, and help you rediscover the humor in life. Don’t wait for a reason to laugh. Plenty of laughter yoga videos online will capture you with their infectious laughter. Try watching. I dare you not to laugh.

Listen to music. Great music flows, teaching us how we can move between melancholy one moment, ecstasy the next. Put on music that moves you. When your mind feels like a caged monkey wanting to escape, try singing or dancing to open up your body. You don’t need joy to sing; singing itself can bring joy.

Cherish the small. In a dark cathedral, a single candle becomes magnificent. When sorrow slows us down and humbles us, it also invites us to discover tiny miracles we might otherwise miss. Our willingness to find wonder invites joy, even when we’re sad.

Practice compassion and gratitude. These are foundational to finding joy. When our pain leads us to expand our care to others who suffer, our sense of belonging and purpose increases. When we move with gratitude, we create more space for joy.

Let it be. I am well trained in the “push” approach to life, but following the flow offers me a way around joy-defeating feelings of entitlement that insist the world should go my way. I don’t always have to like what life offers to remember that joy can live in the shadows.

Open your heart. When you feel pain or jealousy for people whose lives seem easier, practice gentleness and be kind to yourself. “Mudita” is the Sanskrit word for finding joy in the joy of others. Joy can’t reach us when we cower in envy, hide our pain, or numb ourselves to protect our hearts.

Beethoven wrote the last movement of his 9th Symphony while suffering a complete loss of hearing. At the piece’s debut, Beethoven stood at the conductor’s stand forcefully gesturing, without being able to hear his music or the audience. (Fortunately, a second conductor guided the orchestra.) By continuing to write despite his tragedy, Beethoven offered us what the world would later call “The Ode to Joy.”

Don’t wait for happiness or a good mood to create your Ode. Eradicate joy-busters, tend your inner landscape, and—even in times of tragedy— keep the door of your heart cracked open. Then, when you least expect it, joy will find its way in.

Sally Fox, owner of Engaging Presence, is a coach and writer who helps individuals tell their stories and follow their creative callings post-midlife. Read her blog at Engagingpresence.com and listen to her podcasts at 3rd Act Magazine.com

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