To the consumer mentality, joy can be purchased in the form of entertainment and luxuries. The wiser voices within us counsel that joy can be fostered by choosing the activities in which we engage and the people with whom we associate. To Schiller (made famous by Beethoven) joy is a gift of the gods. I’m interested in the question, to what extent is joy a choice that we can make? And are we being discouraged from choosing joy by social cues (operating, perhaps, below the threshold of conscious recognition)?
The wiser voice undoubtedly offers something we can learn from. Maybe you have noticed that you laugh in the midst of people who are laughing. Maybe that is true selectively, and there are some groups that are infused with good-natured laughter, but where you are more likely to feel like a misfit than to feel joy. Maybe there are people who are not so joyous in themselves, but you offer your help to them and they express gratitude and that brings out your joy.
I have noticed in myself a discomfort with spontaneity, laughter and joy. Especially if intense joy crosses a threshold, I have a propensity to stifle it with analysis, returning to a quieter, more thoughtful brain state. I have memories from childhood of being mortified by my peers for enjoying things it wasn’t OK to enjoy: classical music, girls, algebra. There are large segments of American culture where it’s safer to be cynical and hypercritical than to display an open heart.
(This season, I am immersed in a Chinese culture, where joy is far less stigmatized than in America. I have observed African Americans in parties and just hanging out together, where joy has a far greater presence than among my habitual companions. Are Catholics more joyous than Jews? Are yogis more joyful than Buddhists? Are there exceptions to all these generalities, particular groups where joy seems to be a habitual presence and a tacit expectation?)
I encourage you to invite joy into your life in the unabashed hope that I will take my own advice. Step one is to use meditation and hypnotic tricks to be mindful when joy is available to you, and to open to joy when it offers itself. Step two is to use similar techniques to direct your attitude and temperament, reaching for joy in each moment, or in some moments, whether or not you sense its availability on the periphery. (For me, for now, step 1 is enough of a challenge.)
— Josh Mitteldorf
Fresh gusts avail, but yet
My tight-furled will not deploy
As often I forget
To welcome proferred joy