Reaching For Joy in Place of Happiness
‘Listen I love you joy is coming.’ This line ends Kim Addonizio’s poem To the Woman Crying Uncontrollably in the Next Stall, the last 3 words of which are tattooed on my right arm below a tattoo of a jellyfish, which is conveniently also a symbol of one of the many interests that bring me unlimited joy.
Joy is, I have come to understand over the past year, a much more achievable goal than the elusive happiness. After an adolescence with only a handful of moments free from turmoil both internal and external, I am beginning to expand my emotional landscape. As I move closer to longer periods of stability, my ability to experience emotions other than just smooth, dark depression seems to have improved.
I have found, however, that after spending so long cycling through depressive episodes of varying degrees, happiness seems to sometimes evade me and is difficult to hold within my grip for long periods of time. Perhaps this is due to fear, an intimate anxiety about placing any hope in happiness when I’ve grown so conscious of how easy it is for it to slip through my cupped hands, even when the cause is nothing but the passing of one moment to the next. Perhaps it is the pressure I feel from western culture’s ever-changing ideals about the perfect life, ideals that have historically posited complete happiness or ‘good vibes’ as a rigid requirement. Over the years I have found that these ideals are sometimes too constrictive, and leave little room for the full spectrum of human emotion and this has left me struggling to feel completely comfortable claiming an emotion that sometimes feels fraught with expectation.
Through nothing but sheer luck and painful trial and error, language revealed to me the potential for something different, something without the air of permanency that happiness uses against my anxious brain. That something is joy. Joy that can be fleeting and sparse, but also heartfelt and profound. I have come to understand that, for me at least, it is easier to seek joy in small moments when I can, than feel suffocated by the sense of failure that I experience over not procuring fixed, long-term happiness. In order to move away from feeling guilty about my inability to step straight into happiness’ glow, I aim to hold joy close to my chest when I can, and let it leave when the time comes.
I have learnt to cherish finding joy in the tiniest of miracles, no matter how cliché. A quiet walk in the woods, my dog snoring, or the gentle repetition of the waves of the sea. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, joy can be sapped from big events too — A graduation, a job offer, a trip away. But I know that like for most people, my life does not involve an effortless jump from one triumph to the next, and that the most difficult part can be finding pleasure in the mundane and the uneventful. I don’t mean for this outlook to seem twee or idealised; I know the crush of depression, the sinking feeling that returns each time you blink and find everything coated in darkness. I haven’t fully escaped it, maybe I never will, but choosing to highlight small moments of joy allows me to uncover a bit of colour, where there has mostly been grey.
Whilst growing up, I always thought my mum was silly for crying at happy moments on TV and in Film. I couldn’t understand why such a seemingly banal and unimportant moment caused such a stir within her. Over the past year, however, I too have come to find pleasure in these small pockets of joy, and I sometimes feel overwhelmed by their strength. Overwhelmed that I can feel it, hold it, even if only for an hour or two. At first, I wasn’t sure if I needed to seek out these feelings in specific places, but now I know they can be found anywhere, and the less I look, the more I find. I don’t need to focus all my attention on constructing a perfect scenario that I think should make me happy, instead I choose to go about my days paying attention and letting myself believe that the possibility for joy is there, that it will come when it comes and it will go when it goes. One day without joy just means I might find it in the next, or the next, or the next.
Above all, I have Mary Oliver to remind me, in a poem whose title I also have tattooed on my opposite arm, that “joy is not made to be a crumb.” I hope that carrying these words of hers on my arm will always remind me to share them with others, and that they will act as a reminder for myself in the hardest moments… “Don’t hesitate. If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy. Don’t hesitate. Give in to it.”