My daughter is four years old. She is already learning about the harsher aspects of life. I can see her mind working as we talk about the pandemic, about people not having enough to eat, about systemic racism, about people who use power to do things that are not kind. Even the fact that animals eat other animals, that death is around us every single day we are alive, is a big piece of information to be chewed very slowly, with lots of accompanying questions.
And yet, the information does not seem to damper her spirit. She moves through her days driven by curiosity and wonder, on a quest to celebrate all that is bright, beautiful and filled with love. She speaks of love often – her love for myself and her father, for her brother, for the blossoms on the apple tree, the loons on the lake, the lake itself. An abundance of love and celebration pour from her little body, right alongside her desire to understand the very real, very harsh aspects of the world.
I hope that as she grows and matures, that capacity to engage with sad, hard facts while still celebrating life does not go away. Goodness knows, we all need that capacity, perhaps now more than ever. To turn towards the facts of climate change, to try to understand what is happening and how we are participants in the story, and then to conceive of another story with a different ending requires incredible buoyancy of spirit. Sure, we could engage with climate change purely from a place of fear, but how sustainable is such an engagement and how impactful can we be when we act from fear alone?
In short, to be engaged, empowered and impactful citizens of a world with climate change, we must tend to our capacity for joy. Joy, even in the face of the very hard truths about our world today. Joy especially in the face of those truths. From joy comes our celebration of all that is good about this world and all that is possible. Joy informs our vision for a better world. And it is that celebration that inspires creative, solutions-focused action grounded in love.
It is difficult to concretely define joy. As an experience, joy is deep and broad and encompasses many components like gratitude, open-heartedness and presence. I have always connected joy with celebrating the fullness of life, which is also a vast concept.
When I started to poke around for a solid definition of joy, I landed at the Yale Center for Faith & Culture’s project on the Theology of Joy & the Good Life. The first sentence I read was this: “Joy is fundamental to human existence and well-being, yet it is an elusive phenomenon that resists definition.”
While it is difficult to precisely define joy, it is possible to deepen our understanding of the concept both by exploring what joy is not and through considering the components that build together to cultivate joy.
Joy is distinct from happiness. Writers, psychologists and theologians alike agree that while happiness comes and goes quickly, joy is a more lasting, pervasive experience. Joy is less contingent on external factors, instead resulting from a combination of internal qualities that shape a general approach to life and view of the world. Happiness, on the other hand, is often dependent on external circumstances.
It is interesting to note the position historically held by joy in Judaism and Christianity. For millennia, both the cultivation and articulation of joy were essential to these religions. Joy was taken to symbolize the embodied experience of one’s faith.
This historical context of joy intersects with contemporary attempts to qualify the concept, many of which associate joy with an understanding/appreciation of “the good life” and a steady connection to a sense that life is meaningful. Those studying joy often note the importance of the following components:
- connection to community
- sense of purpose
- decreasing stress
- ability to be with challenge and discomfort – including challenging emotions
Joy and life’s challenges
Importantly, joy is not an escape from hard times or emotions. Instead, joy depends on the capacity to face the very real, challenging aspects of being alive. If we do not feel that capacity, then we live in a constant state of stress and fear, trying to avoid anything that is difficult. Therefore, an important component of joy is the ability to take in real challenge while maintaining connection to a sense of both self and the world as more expansive than the moment or feeling in question. So, too, is the motivation to turn to compassionate action and solution-seeking in the face of all that is terrible in the world.
When framed thus, joy is the opposite of a naive world view. It is a muscular, courageous approach to life in which we are aware of life’s harshness and still celebrate all that is good, turning both into action aimed at addressing the harshness and increasing the good.
The intersection of gratitude and joy cannot be overstated. Every source I turned to on joy emphasized this connection. And the intersection makes sense. If joy is even partly a celebration of life, or a celebratory attitude through which we experience life, then gratitude must be a strong component of joy.
Social psychologist Brene Brown notes that in all her years of research, she did not meet one person who spoke about joy who did not also have an active gratitude practice. And when Brown says active gratitude practice, she really means active. These were people who made time daily for specific activities that emphasize gratitude.
Incidentally, inspired by this research, my family recently started just such a practice. Every evening at dinner, we each talk about what we are grateful for within the day that is about to end. Since starting this practice, we have all felt our lives deepen with meaning and – yes – joy. And this is in the midst of so many aspects of the “world-as-we-know-it” essentially going up in flames. The practice is potent and the effects are real and nearly instantaneous.
Vulnerability – not running from joy to protect ourselves from loss
Brown also emphasizes the connection between joy and vulnerability. Because change is the only constant in life, we know that the very moments and things that fill us with gratitude and contribute to our sense of joy are impermanent. If we are to fully inhabit both our gratitude and our joy, we must make peace with this fact. Otherwise, we tend to not allow ourselves true celebration of all that is good. We try instead to prepare for the loss that we know is inevitable. Rather than staying with what is good, our mind and emotions quickly travel on to what might come in and steal away that goodness – and how we can prevent that loss. This effort to protect ourselves from the challenging emotions that accompany loss is understandable, but through the attempt, we rob ourselves of joy as well.
The tendency to create barriers due to our fear of loss is why joy is a courageous emotion that requires attention and cultivation.
The first step in supporting young people in cultivating joy is through our own relationship with the emotion. After all, how we relate to joy greatly determines how our children grow into the experience themselves.
As adults, our relationship with joy can be complicated. I notice many adults dismissing both the feeling and expressions of joy as naive or childlike.
I believe this dismissal has several roots. First, it relates back to Brown’s point regarding joy and vulnerability. We are scared to fully experience joy. To do so makes us more vulnerable to loss. And, as adults, we have become experts at protecting ourselves from vulnerability.
Second, as a culture, we often align cynicism with maturity. And yet joy is not synonymous with naivete. It is gratitude in the face of all that is real and difficult in this world and it involves the courage to lean into what is good while acknowledging the real challenges all around us. Joy does not involve establishing blinders to the horrors present in the world in order to only see that which makes us feel good. That effort is a fear-driven experience of incredible stress, anxiety and a desire for control. Joy, on the other hand, is a courageous, whole-hearted experience of opening to the fullness of the world and celebrating both the good and what is possible.
Furthermore, studies of joy often point to the connection between joyful living and actively trying to make a positive contribution to the world. Because the quality of our relationships with others – feeling connected in a meaningful way – is a central component of joy, compassionate living is directly tied to joyful living.
Along with tending to our own experience, how can we best support our children in cultivating joy?
In their book Awakening Joy for Kids, educators James Baraz and Michelle Lilyanna outline a number of evidence-based practices designed to build and support a joyful relationship with life. The following are central practices within the book, but the full book is a comprehensive, invaluable guide for parents and teachers alike.
- Gratitude practices
Every resource I turned to in my research on joy emphasized the role of active gratitude practices, and Baraz and Lilyanna’s work was no exception. Time and again, gratitude has been demonstrated to significantly contribute to long-term wellbeing in people of all ages. And remember, joy is a long-term experience, distinct from fleeting feelings of happiness. Whether through gratitude meditation, a gratitude journal or wall, taking time each day to share what we are grateful for or some other consistent practice, there is no time like the present to build gratitude practices into your daily family life.
- Mindfulness practices
Part of the reason joy is so difficult to define is that it is a complex experience, built upon many interrelated components. One of those components is stress-reduction. Another is approaching life with full-presence, resulting in the increased ability to fully notice all life has to offer. Mindfulness practices directly cultivate both of these components of joy.
- Setting intentions
Children can begin learning the power of intention at a very young age. We have found this to be true in our daughter. As young as age three, we began introducing the power of intention into her life. For example, when she was in a funk, focused on something she wanted but couldn’t have or wanted to do but couldn’t, we would acknowledge her experience and then encourage her to shift her focus and set the intention to “turn the moment around”. This didn’t always work – and in those cases, we’d honor that she just needed more time to be really upset without giving the upset too much energy – but she clearly and quickly appreciated that by setting the intention to notice what was good in the moment, she could actively change her experience. Again, this is not to encourage a denial of real hardship. There is a difference between setting the intention to stop focusing on a toy we want but cannot have and trying to avoid the awareness of homelessness, for example.
- Building compassion
Meaningful relationships and a steadfast sense of connection to others are two more essential components of joy, and both are built through compassion for others. Care for others, and the experience of translating that care into action, contributes to emotional, relational and even physical well-being. Compassion is another quality that can be developed through encouragement and practice. This article from Positive Psychology is a great dive into some of the research around compassion at different stages of child development, obstacles to compassion and why compassion is important. A few practices to help develop compassion include reading and discussing stories about helpers, strengthening empathy through observing and discussing the feelings of others, brainstorming how your child might help when they see someone suffering and giving them the tools to actually follow-through, and practicing loving-kindness meditations.
- Resilience in difficult times
This is one of the most essential components of joy. Again, joy is a pervasive feeling, unlike the fleeting experience of happiness. Joy involves acknowledging life’s very real difficulties and not running from them. Consequently, cultivating joy also involves cultivating a mind and heart that are not afraid of challenge or discomfort and instead have the capacity to show up in moments of challenge with presence, compassion and even curiosity. And, of course, this capacity is an especially significant component of joy in the face of climate change.
How do we help young people build this type of resilience? How do we build it for ourselves? The answer to these questions is complex and could – and will – fill another post. For the time being, several key suggestions from Baraz and Lilyanna include the following.
For adults, they offer the RAIN method of exploring difficult emotions. RAIN stands for recognize (identify the feeling), allow (allow yourself to feel the emotion and – for at least a few minutes – give yourself permission to just be with that feeling, difficult thought it might be, without rushing to change the experience), investigate (get curious about how the emotion feels – physically, energetically – without forming a story around the feeling), and non-identification (this feeling does not define who you are – “I’m feeling angry.” vs. “I’m an angry person.”) Throughout the whole process, a deep practice of self-compassion is an essential component of building our capacity for challenging emotions.
For young people, Baraz and Lilyanna emphasize resisting the urge to shelter the young people we love from all difficult experiences. It is important that young people experience difficult emotions and frustrations – within an overall context of safety. Overprotecting young people sends the message that we should avoid difficult feelings and builds an experience of anxiety and even fear. It is important that we honor anger, sadness, frustration and many more challenging experiences in young people, teaching them to honor the feelings for themselves and not be afraid of them. The RAIN process, simplified, can be a powerful tool for young people as well, and we can support them in the process of naming feelings, allowing them, being curious about our experience of them, and ultimately not identifying with those feelings.
Bringing joy into the classroom
Cultivating joy in young people is not solely the work of the home environment. By the end of high school, youth have spent over 150,000 hours in school. If schools are not cultivating joy, more than young people’s attitudes towards learning will suffer.
Education thought-leader Steven Wolk put together this invaluable article exploring how to cultivate joy in the classroom. The whole article is well worth a read, but here are his eleven central suggestions:
- Find the pleasure in learning
- Give students choice
- Let students create things
- Show off student work
- Take time to tinker
- Make school spaces inviting
- Get outside
- Read good books
- Offer more gym and art classes
- Transform assessment
- Have some fun together
Do you see a theme here? Encouraging and following student curiosity and creativity, spending time outside and in imaginative spaces and making the experience more joyful for teachers – all are critical elements of joyful educational experiences. And all require that we put education in the place of priority of which it is so deserving – in terms of funding, talent, and every other type of support we can give.