By Brandon Nappi
Have you noticed the incredible pressure in American culture to be constantly happy? Life has become one giant happiness project that is as haphazard as it is fruitless. Luxury cars, hair conditioner, and faster cell phone service all promise to increase our happiness in some vital way.
Underlying these messages is the implicit assumption that we should be striving to maintain elevated states of delight and happiness at all times. This artificial elevation is simply an invention of a marketing culture that locates the cause of happiness outside ourselves. Our society puts incredible pressure on us to be happy. Shelves at bookstores are spilling over with self-help books. Happiness is a billion-dollar industry which peddles everything from wrinkle-free skin to slim waist lines and the perfect sex life. I don’t know about you, but this pressure to be happy is making me unhappy. Think of the messages that we invite into our homes by way of television: you’re fat, ugly, too old, too wrinkled, too stupid, too busy, and too tired. Billions of dollars a year are spent to entice us to measure our happiness by externals.
While we all wish to be happy, I find it incredibly freeing to remember that we are not created to feel constant pleasure. Conditions constantly change. Sadness, anger, and fear are equally part of the rich tapestry of human experience. Living a full life does not demand the elimination of all negative emotions. Indeed, we actually need a rich diversity of emotions to live deeply. The degree to which you know sadness is the degree to which you know joy.
By joy, I mean something deeper and more lasting than happiness. While happiness naturally ebbs and flows daily according to mood, life experience, and external conditions, true joy is like the current deep below the river where I bring my young daughters to play. Depending upon which point of the river we visit, we might notice calm pools of peace, crashing whitewater, or places where the water almost seems to be running backwards as it encounters giant boulders and tree trunks. The surface of the river knows the great variety of activity, but deep beneath the surface, the water knows only one direction.
Your sorrow, anger, frustration, and worry along with your happiness, gratitude, and elation are all valuable parts of what it means to be human. If those emotions make up the ever-changing surface in the river of our humanity, then joy is the steady current deep beneath. So you can have joy even in your sorrow. You can have joy beneath your anger. An abiding joy unfolds in the depths of our soul when we welcome whatever is arising on the surface with a spirit of acceptance. In an age of chronic pressure to look happy on the outside, we easily forget that joy comes from deep within.
So how do you cultivate this abiding joy? First, remember that being joyful is not about becoming something you’re not; it’s not about getting something you don’t have. Being joyful is about accessing something you already have. It is gained through awareness, not acquisition. This is the gift of mindfulness. Mindfulness opens our eyes to the richness and sacredness of what is already there. Within any awareness practice is the stunning surprise that joy is always available amid the full range of human emotion. Joy is provoked by the thing you walk past everyday — a dog’s wagging tail, a dandelion, the worn eighty-year path of footsteps on a colonial staircase.
What is remarkable about joy is precisely that it is not remarkable. The potential for joy has been generously scattered all over the earth like my daughter scattering sprinkles on her birthday cupcakes. This boundless joy has often been missing in organized religion. For too long, we’ve made the contemplative life a rather gloomy and somber endeavor in which spiritual practice has been defined by how aloof, disconnected, and how other-worldly we can seem. Joylessness is the surest sign of an impoverished and sick spirituality. If your spiritual path isn’t nourishing a palpable sense of quiet and ordinary joy, it may be time to evaluate the path itself.