Practicing Joy

Practicing Joy

I am not what anyone would call a "happy person". For as long as I can remember, I’ve never been predisposed to a bubbly demeanor or a sunny internal landscape. Instead, I coped with my childhood by being emotionally aloof, which gave way to anxiety as an adult.

For a long time, I carried around the assumption that if something sufficiently delightful happened to me, I would automatically, intuitively know how to experience and express elation in that moment. I expected that joy is some irresistible force that would knock me upside the head with involuntary giddiness.

Instead, I mostly felt flat and detached in moments that were supposed to be joyful occasions. Sure, I felt a little pleased, but I grappled with a tangle of emotions that resulted from not feeling "happy enough" when I was "supposed" to, with shame chief among them.

Brené Brown has said that joy is the most vulnerable emotion. Getting comfortable with vulnerability must be purposefully, mindfully cultivated, and that includes joy. With that in mind, it's no wonder that joy is one of the hardest emotions to lean into.

Much like other types of vulnerability, the practice of joy is built starting with small actions. Engaging with low-stakes joy strengthens the emotional muscle that ultimately enables us to feel and express deeper, more expansive levels of joy on the big stuff. Turns out, it's not about expecting joy to come to you. It's about intentionally chasing after it, and nourishing it once it's caught.

Chasing after joy is finding the things that hold even the tiniest modicum of happiness, no matter how insignificant, and then focusing a ton of enthusiasm toward them.

When I started running, I quickly discovered that spending time alone in nature cracked the door open to joy in a way I hadn't experienced before. Moving through wild spaces made me feel safe in more fully experiencing joyful emotions. Wonder is a perfect corridor to joy. As time went on, being in nature also created a space for me to not just experience those feelings inside, but deepen the feelings by learning to externally express them. With no one around, I felt free to experiment with what it might look like to be openly joyful without worrying about embarrassing myself.

For me, practicing joy is getting off my bike and spinning in circles in the middle of the trail with my arms out. Joy is dancing it out to my Spotify playlist while I run. It's stopping to take dozens of pictures just because I think something looks cool. It's celebrating tiny accomplishments with utter zealotry. It's anything that helps amplify and savor those good feelings just a little longer, even if it feels foolish. Especially if it feels foolish.

We don't have to be naturally talented at joy. Instead, experiencing joy is open to anyone willing to take on the practice. For me, that's liberating.