We each bring our own personal and cultural associations to particular words, and so my use of “joy” and “happiness” might differ from yours. J.D. Salinger wrote, in his short story De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period, that “the most singular difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is a solid and joy a liquid.” In that context, I believe the image was communicating that joy is more transient, leaking out quickly, where happiness has a hardy, enduring quality.
I experience joy as a natural response to acceptance of one’s life as it is. My critique of the culture of “be positive!” is its fixated nature, where admission that one is not happy all the time is tantamount to admitting that one is somehow a failed, flawed person without a strong enough will. Joy does not replace other feelings, but accompanies us as we feel exactly what we feel in the moment. In the depths of grief, I have felt profound spikes of joy, because both emotions rise from the same well. Joy is that affirmation that we are alive, that life is a worthy task. When we get stuck in avoiding pain and clinging to happiness, or avoiding happiness and clinging to pain, we lose the capacity for joy.
For some, joy waits at the bottom of a mess of painful memories and experiences. We might have to allow in a great deal of discomfort to make room for joy. Not suffering for the sake of suffering, we can aim to simply allow ourselves to feel what we feel in the moment—pain in the back, a sweet smell in the air, warm clothes.
We can also court joy in our lives. We can choose to approach life with a joyful attitude, ready to celebrate whatever comes our way, and not experiencing life as a series of hard lessons or some conspiracy to keep us complaining and unhappy. This might feel facile or uncomfortable for folks who see the pain and weight of the world and believe pleasure and joy are unworthy responses. Again, grief and joy can coexist in the same heart. I would go so far as to say that they must, because grief is the necessary cost of love.
Here’s a recipe for cultivating joy: Slow down your breathing, filling your belly with breath and exhaling completely. Notice your senses. If you can see, what can you see? If you can hear, what can you hear? If you can feel, smell, and taste, what do you notice? Breathe with this for five long breaths, allowing yourself to revel in sensation, even if some of it feels unpleasant.
What are you grateful for? Do you have clean water? Warm clothing? Do you have a place to sleep? Do you have any or all of your senses to drink in these sensations?
If you feel stuck, imagine that your heart is an open cup and pour out that which feels stagnant. Continue breathing in sensation and gratitude, imagining that these can fill your cup with joy. Practice radical acceptance—whatever arises within, whether it feels good or bad, respond to it with “Yes. And this. And this.”