“Shared joy is increased…” – Spider Robinson
In some recent travels my co-presenter and I were discussing the idea of joy and misery. She remarked that there were times that the misery in the world seemed overwhelming because there was so much of it.
“But isn’t the world also filled with joy?” I countered. “Even in the most miserable conditions humans manage to find moments of joy, laughter, connection…that’s been proven time and again.” I’m a big fan of Maslow, as you might expect.
She nodded, but then shook her head. “I know. Maybe it’s just that I’m more sensitive to the misery…it’s just so much more noticeable than the joy.” It reminded me of my undergrad, when I was trying to create pieces about happiness and positive emotions in the midst of a cohort of angst-and-anger-filled dance students.
My professor at one point chastised me, saying that in order to make meaningful work I needed to stop chasing fluffy clouds. “Happiness is overrated!” he declared.
“Oh yeah?” I challenged. “Well, misery is easy!”
Of course, from a zen perspective neither joy nor misery are anything but the added layers of meaning we put onto things that happen. If I stub my toe in the night, is it because I was a clumsy idiot? Or because my partner thoughtlessly moved the table? Or because I’m starting to lose my eyesight, as indicated by my lack of vision in twilight?
It actually doesn’t mean any of those things – it simply means that the table met my toe at a moment in time. Everything else is a meaning that I give it, and even if it turns out that I am going blind, that is also simply a thing.
What that implies is that we do, technically, have the ability to remove the filter of misery from things that happen. I stub my toe, I say “OW!”, and that’s that. My toe and the table don’t benefit from worry, from blame, or made up stories.
But it’s hard to get out of the habit of dwelling on the misery, especially as you work to develop a practice of awareness. My co-presenter quoted a feminist slogan for me: “The Truth will set you free – but first it will piss you off.” The more you pay attention, the more awful and injust and downright bad the world can seem.
Practicing the Joy Filter
Plus, it’s entertaining. People want to hear about other people’s misery, hence the rise of journalism, reality TV, soap operas, epic fantasy, and the blues. We are surrounded by a miasma of portrayals of misery combined with marketing designed to convince us that we are also miserable – until we get that new phone, that new watch, that new thingummy.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t practice, once in a while, the joy filter. You don’t have to get all polly-anna-ish and declare only the good things. I think it can be more subtle than that. I think it has to be more subtle than that. One technique I’ve heard of, for example, is the practice of ending each day by writing down three things you’re grateful for. Supposedly that practice will change, gradually, your perspective on life.
It sounds worth it to me. Personally, I am currently in a place in my life where I’m more happy and fulfilled than I ever could have imagined. I look at my life just a few years before and wonder “What the heck was that guy thinking?”” Part of why I’m feeling so good these days, though, is because I was lucky enough to have the free time to really study how to be happy, and try to make it work.
Most people don’t have that luck. And yet even knowing this, I still sometimes fall into my old habits. If someone says “How’s it goin’, Gray?” my first reaction is to say something like I’m so busy! or Tryin’ to pay bills! or Overworked and underpaid!
Why is it so hard to just tell the truth: I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life, and it’s because of the people and work and play in it?
It’s because I’m out of practice doing that. So I try, in small steps. Sometimes when I’m heading off to some exotic locale (such as Piscataway, NJ, where I’m returning from as I write this) I hear someone make some comment like “Gee, rough life, eh, Gray?”
I used to respond quite angrily to this: “I worked hard to get where I am! I have a right to what I’ve accomplished, and if you wanted it, you would do it too!” Thankfully I got over that, mostly, but then I would often respond with some long, drawn-out explanation of why this life is not actually glamorous, of the many pains and sacrifices and frustrations that come from self-employment.
But that’s not really helping either. I mean, if they look at my life and have an inaccurate idea of what it’s like, so what? By trying to correct their impression I’m just taking away from a happy thought.
So my conscious practice now is, when I hear someone say that, to respond with “Yes! I am a very fortunate man!” In my head this is said with cheerful smiles and a merry tone. In reality, according to at least two of my friends who heard me say it this past weekend, I’m still sounding grumpy and maybe even a bit whiny when I say it.
That’s ok. The practice of “fake it til you make it” is a time-honored method of habit change. It is a wonderful thing to remind myself that I have a great life.
After all, if you don’t notice the good around you, there’s no way you’re going to enjoy it. And wouldn’t that just be a shame?