How We Make Joy

About a week ago I had the opportunity to talk about joy with a group of Korean middle and high school students. Everything had to be translated into Korean, so for the sake of brevity and clarity—and because of my young audience—I tried to keep it really simple. Neither of those factors are present here, so here’s the long version.

I chose this topic because Korea has the second highest suicide rate in the world and suicide is the number one cause of death among people aged 10 to 39 in Korea. I think suicide is very high in Korea because many people feel stressed, isolated, and disappointed by the current structures they are told to find meaning within. Many people work hard in school or at their job because they are told success and achievement will bring them joy and make others accept them, but that’s not how joy works. This is not an issue specific to Korea, but I think it has a high tendency to make individuals in Korea feel trapped because of firm social patterns in which young people feel unable to escape or challenge the expectations of climbing the social ladder. Of course, I’ve met several Koreans who don’t fit into this generalization, but I believe they are an exceptional minority, and that this generalization is still true for many young people in Korea.

My hope was simply to introduce a conversation to this group of youth which would get them thinking about the ways they are told to find meaning and pursue satisfaction in life. And possibly see that there is more to a full life than grades, diplomas, promotions, and corporate ladders.

Joy Requires…

I explained five points to the students which I thought were important for forging joy. While talking with the students I also included personal anecdotes related to each point, but I decided to leave those out here. I don’t typically like bulleted lists because it feels formulaic (or like BuzzFeed), but I don’t think of any of these points as part of a “joy formula”. To me, these are habits and ways of being that disrupt stress, isolation, and unhealthy achievement expectations, while also giving us connection, perspective, and rejuvenation. I’m aware that this is not an exhaustive list, but it’s a pretty good start for a lot of us. So, having joy requires:

1. Cultivating gratitude by being present and developing perspective to see the deep good in front of us. 

If I am always sacrificing my wholeness in pursuit of some later goal, I will arrive there empty and dissatisfied. We rob ourselves of joy when we fail to see the good around us and respond to it appropriately. I think this is partly what is at stake in the Sabbath commandment. Be present while you play, while you work, while you worship, with family, and while you’re alone.

2. A willingness to hold on to life, even when there is very little that makes sense in it. 

Life sucks sometimes, and it doesn’t always suck equally. We will all need to fight for joy, but unfortunately some of us may have to fight harder than others. Sometimes we must fight to see the shimmering goodness that lies beneath the ordinary of life. In this sense, joy is an act of resistance against despair and the ways in which despair tries to drive us towards death; death meaning not only the end of life but all of the ways in which life can be strangled. Sometimes joy is not happy. Sometimes it is a firm resolution to. just. keep. going…

3. People who can make you laugh when all you want to do is cry, and who have learned how to ride the waves of chaos and can show you how.

We all need people. It is our people who will remind us that we will be okay again, even when things feel irredeemably broken. It is our people who will show us how to walk through hell, and at times even heave our limp souls onto their shoulders and carry us through that pit. It is our people who will show us how to dance when despair has made us forget. Put simply,  joy is not complete unless it is shared. Because God, as Jesus, has participated in the human experience, he is one of these people who can show us how to ride the waves of chaos and maneuver through pain and suffering.

4. Navigating negative emotions, rather than running from them. If we dull negative emotions, we’ll also dull joy.

Humans like to pretend we’re rational creatures, but that’s only partly true. Youth especially are at a time in life—due to biology and psychology—when they have an ability to experience emotions deeply, which can be disorienting. It’s important for them, as well as us, to realize this is okay. Youth need to know that many of their peers are just as anxious and self-conscious as they are. Finding groups where they can express how they really feel and think with people their age is super important for them, and us. If we shut-down, shut-up, or give-up it will be really had to enjoy life.

5. An ability to play and rest, rather than working to exhaustion in pursuit of accomplishments and acquisitions. 

No amount of achieving, or doing, will ever make you feel like you are enough. What you need to realize is that you are enough as you are. “We have to become intentional about cultivating playfulness and rest, and about letting go of exhaustion and busyness as a status symbol of productivity. The opposite of play is not work—the opposite of play is depression.” Doing more will not lead to being more. I think this is why Sabbath is a commandment, not a suggestion.

Pretty much none of this came from my brain. If there is anything insightful in this, it came from The Yale Center for Faith & Culture, Brené BrownJohn Piper, or a few miscellaneous articles I read.