Countless talks, articles and books teach us how to earn more, worry less, and look better. As the author of a self-help book and a lover of the genre, I’m all about problem-solving. However, few of us are ever taught what may be the single greatest skill of all for a happy life: learning to bear our joys.
The unspoken truth about joy is that it makes us nervous. Joy invites superstitious fantasies of “the other shoe dropping.” In a life filled with countless unexpected back-hand blows, our happiness can feel fragile and evanescent; just too scary to trust.
Frequently–and without even realizing it–we step past our quiet deeper joys in our search for happiness. For example, when we feel pride in our accomplishments, pleasure quickly devolves into a kind of clinical self-evaluation. We try to minimize our good feelings. Or we instantly parry our joy with a self-deprecating perspective that degrades the positive feeling we’ve just had.
Carl Jung, a student of Freud and one of history’s greatest psychoanalysts, says that all neurosis is a flight from authentic suffering. This is life-changing wisdom—but it’s only half the truth. In my experience, much of our neurosis is actually a flight from authentic joy.
Joy makes our carefully constructed defenses tremble. We can bear joy for fleeting moments, but after a short period of time, we flee it for the safety of our more familiar problem—solving mode of being. In modern society, there is a vague and nameless discomfort with joy, and our voracious pleasure seeking is often a mask for that discomfort.
In truth, joy is not such a simple thing. In its own way, it can be hard to bear. One of the greatest tasks for everyone seeking deeper happiness in life is to learn to savor joy, to bear its sweet disruption. Almost none of us have been taught how to do this.
Like grief, we don’t have to be able to bear our joy all at once. It’s a muscle to be built—a skill to be learned. It’s an almost homeopathic process. Drop by drop we can learn to bear joy for longer and longer stretches of time.
Most of us in the field of mental health are well-trained in addressing problems, but we are less comfortable with helping our clients dive fully into their joys. In psychotherapy, as in life, problem-solving is the uber-goal. The focus on joy seems more flimsy, less important–as though joy can just take care of itself. In my opinion, this is a mistake. One of our greatest life-tasks is actually to learn to bear joy, and to let it influence our psychology in deeper and deeper ways.
This deceptively simple practice, which only takes one to two minutes, will help you build the important (and untaught) skill of savoring your joys. It’s gratifying, soothing and meditative. In decades of teaching meditation and mindfulness practices, it’s perhaps the simplest and most lovely practice I know. Here it is:
Micro-Meditation: Savoring Joy
Any time you experience joy, happiness, peace or pleasure in your day-to-day life, don’t just note it and move on. Take an extra 30 seconds or so to savor the good feeling. Let it linger, casting its ripples inside you. Get to know its flavor. When the ripples of pleasure pass, just move on with your day. You can do this with the many tiny pleasures of your day; your morning coffee, a positive interaction, an interesting or beautiful sight. In the warmth that you feel after these tiny moments, you’ll feel enriched deepened and somehow enhanced.
William Blake wrote: And we are put on earth a little space, that we might learn to bear the beams of love.” The same can be said for “bearing the beams of joy.” Practice this micro-meditation as often as you like. As you learn to rest in your joys and pleasures just a bit longer, you’ll increase your capacity for joy, and enrich your life in surprising and wonderful ways.
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