The Joy Paradox

How America's quest for happiness is making us miserable

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Have you noticed the incredible pressure in American culture to be constantly happy? Life has become one giant happiness project that is as haphazard as it is fruitless. Luxury cars, exotic hair conditioners, home improvement shows, and instantaneous cell phone service all promise to supersize our happiness in some life-changing way.

Underlying these messages is the implicit assumption that we should be striving to maintain elevated states of delight and exuberance at every moment. This artificial elevation is simply an invention of a marketing culture that locates the cause of happiness outside ourselves. Shelves at bookstores are spilling over with self-help books. Happiness is a billion-dollar industry that peddles everything from wrinkle-free skin to slim waistlines and the perfect sex life.

I don’t know about you, but this pressure to be happy is making me unhappy. Think of the messages that we invite into our homes by way of television: you’re fat, ugly, too old, too wrinkled, too stupid, too busy, and too tired. Billions of dollars a year are spent to entice us to measure our happiness by external means. The market requires our dis-ease to fuel consumption.

While we all desire happiness, I find it incredibly freeing to remember that we are not created to feel constant pleasure. Conditions constantly change. Sadness, anger, and fear are equally part of the rich tapestry of human experience. Living a full life does not demand the elimination of all negative emotions. Indeed, we actually need a rich diversity of emotions to live deeply. The degree to which you know sadness is the degree to which you know joy.

By joy, I mean something deeper and more lasting than happiness. While happiness naturally ebbs and flows daily according to mood, life experience, and external conditions, true joy is like the current deep below the river where I bring my young daughters to play. Depending upon which point of the river we visit, we might notice calm pools of peace, crashing whitewater, or places where the water almost seems to be running backward as it encounters giant boulders and fallen tree trunks. The surface of the river knows the great variety of activity, but deep beneath the surface, the water knows a steady single direction.

Your sorrow, anger, frustration, and worry along with your happiness, gratitude, and elation are all valuable parts of what it means to be human. If those emotions make up the ever-changing surface of the river of our humanity, then joy is the steady current deep beneath. So, you can have deep joy even in your sorrow. You can have quiet joy beneath your anger. An abiding joy unfolds in the depths of our soul when we welcome whatever is arising on the surface with a spirit of acceptance. In an age of chronic pressure to look happy on the outside, we easily forget that joy comes from deep within.

So how do you cultivate this abiding joy? First, remember the paradoxical nature of joy. The more you pursue it, the farther away it recedes. Joy is not a trophy attained through hard work; rather, it is a consequence of living in harmony with your values and in accord with universal principles. Joy is gained through awareness, not acquisition. Therefore, being joyful is not about becoming something you’re not; it’s not about getting something you don’t have. Being joyful is about accessing the presence that is within you. This is the gift of nonjudgmental moment-to-moment awareness known as mindfulness which opens our eyes to the richness and sacredness of what is already there.

So, if you want to discover joy, ask yourself, “What is sacred to me?” Then dedicate every cell and each fiber of your being to that. Organize your life around what you cherish by removing as much as you can that doesn’t serve this sacredness and honor your values. Inevitably, you may discover that there is a cost of living in alignment with your sacred values. Comfortable patters may need to be jettisoned, old habits re-evaluated, past hurts revisited and relationships surrendered for a time. For many of us, this sacred subtraction requires a deep inner investigation that guards the path of joy like a watchdog. Many will see a ferocious dog and abandon the path of joy altogether; those who can befriend the dog by moving through the inevitable fear, shame, and pain that arises in any thorough self-investigation will discover that path of joy has been waiting for them in every moment. The soul is unbreakable and what you think will destroy you has no power over you. This is the unending gift of awareness and the central insight at the center of every great spiritual tradition.

Within any awareness practice is the stunning surprise that joy is always available amid the full range of human emotion. Joy is provoked by the thing you walk past every day — a dog’s wagging tail, a dandelion, the wear of eighty years of footsteps on a colonial staircase. What is remarkable about joy is precisely that it is not remarkable. The potential for joy has been generously scattered all over the earth like my daughter scattering sprinkles on her birthday cupcakes.

This boundless joy has often been missing in spiritual seekers and organized religion. For too long, we’ve made the contemplative life a rather gloomy and somber endeavor in which spiritual practice has been defined by how aloof, disconnected, and how other-worldly we can seem. Joylessness is the surest sign of an impoverished and sick spirituality. If your spiritual path isn’t nourishing a palpable sense of quiet and ordinary joy, it may be time to evaluate the path itself.

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