What emotion comes to your mind when you think of 2020-21?
For me, right now, it’s joy.
As in, “does anyone remember what joy feels like?”
Well… that’s not entirely fair. There’s still joy to be found. For example, last year I became an uncle for the first time. Pictures of my new nephew during lockdown—and cuddles since—have been a genuine, deep joy.
I’m choosing that word deliberately. Joy. It’s a short word, easy to skirt over. But it’s deeper than happiness, purer than ecstasy, more powerful than mere pleasure. And it’s important. Even living a long lifetime of nothing but calm contentment would be lacking without joy. Joy isn’t a luxury emotion; it’s a necessity.
But joy no longer seems as easy to come by as it once did.
In search of that pure childish joy
Ask yourself this: “when did you last experience joy?”
If I were to ask my childhood self I’m sure they would respond—at great length—about the most recent exciting thing I’d experienced. But as I’ve gotten older, the answer has been harder to find. “Joy, you say? Joy?! When did I last feel joy? Hm. Let me think…”
This question shouldn’t be difficult. My life is far from joyless. But as I pore over my memories, I find myself discounting mere moments of happiness. None of them—whether good news or triumph—bring to mind the sort of unmitigated joy I remember from my childhood. To my adult mind, there’s always a string attached.
A prestigious invitation means anxiety over everything I’ll have to do to prepare. A career win never quite solves all my problems. A new passion will inevitably fade. Even the delight at the birth of my nephew got me worrying about the state of the world we’re leaving for his generation.
Sometimes this wears me down. I miss that no-strings-attached joy. Occasionally I feel jaded, fearing that nothing will ever live up to that feeling again and that my enjoyment of everything is doomed to dissipate.
But I simply don’t believe that we’re destined for joy to gradually leave us like air departing a party balloon. Something is getting in the way and preventing me from reconnecting with my joy. And that something… well… it’s probably me, isn’t it? Let’s figure it out.
The first place to search for clues is in moments of genuine joy from the last few years. Some moments are personal—with family, friends, births or relationships. Others are about relief at the end of a difficulty. And many of them hold the joy of discovering something new: a passion I hadn’t suspected I had, a delight in diving into a whole new world of learning.
But, looking closer, I find myself wondering if these moments I’m labelling “joy” are really all the same emotion. Is the joy at the birth of a nephew the same as the joy of discovering a new interest? What about the joy of creating something versus the joy of consuming something? Does it really make sense to use the same word to refer to all of these concepts? Even vocalizing the question makes it clear that these aren’t all quite the same emotion.
Which means that the joy at the beginning of something doesn’t have to be the same as the joy of going deeper. Perhaps when I’m perceiving that “joy has gone missing,” I’m really pining for the joy of novelty. After all, it would make sense that there’s less of that particular joy as I get older. Everything was new to my childhood self.
This may also explain my occasional jadedness at going deeper into a passion, hobby or project; I’ve gotten so focused on that one particular type of “joy from novelty” that I miss all the others. There’s joy to be found in mastery, and in improvement, and in the deepening of a craft, career or relationship. Entering a flow state may not always be exhilarating, but it’s still a kind of joy.
If I wanted to coin a deepity—a bit of nonsense that sounds profound—then at this point I might say something wise-sounding, like “passion doesn’t fade, it changes,” so I could moralize about how important it is to appreciate all the different types of joy that I’m ignoring. But the thought annoys me. It’s all very well being told that “joy is there to be appreciated,” but that knowledge doesn’t help with how.
What am I supposed to do? Sit around consciously trying to appreciate joy?! I can’t think of anything less joyous.
The pattern that cracks the case
Returning to the scene to look for more clues yields one more important observation. Those moments I called “joy” were all different, but they shared something in common. In each of them, I was living in the moment. In a flow state, deep in a project. Fully absorbed in learning something new. Completely focused on having fun. Being fully present is a necessary component of feeling joy.
(It may not be a sufficient component; it’s quite possible to be fully present and have a terrible time. But without being fully present, there’ll be no joy.)
Perhaps it’s not that joy is fading after all, I’m just burying it under worries and thoughts and troubles and concerns, and it takes a lot of joy to break out from beneath all those layers.
This makes joy seem much more attainable. Rather than actively trying to feel grateful—and irritating myself with false, forced gratitude—I simply have to stop overanalyzing and relax into whatever I’m doing.
…I suddenly wonder… does it count as overanalyzing your emotions to write a thousand words about one of them?
Maybe. But I got into flow as I was doing it, and am feeling pretty joyous right now. I hope you can do the same today, whatever you’re working on.
[this article was originally written for Puttylike]
Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you said hello.