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What is joy?

It’s such a compelling concept, but no dictionary definition I’ve ever read seems to capture it.

If we can understand what it is, then we’ll know how to experience more of it.

First, what it isn’t.

Though joy can make you happy, it isn’t plain happiness. Happiness is what you feel when things go your way – when the one you like likes you back, you get the job, or the weather is fine.

Though joy can be pleasurable, it isn’t just pleasure. Pleasure is happiness in the body – when something, like chocolate or a good workout, or someone, like a friend or a lover, makes you feel good physically.

Though joy is delightful, it isn’t only delight. Delight is a high degree of happiness or pleasure – a squeal instead of a smile; laughing until you can’t breathe instead of ordinary laughing; saying, “YAWP!” instead of “Cool!”

Joy is deeper and more complicated. It isn’t dependent on circumstances, physical sensations, or intensity. It is existential – the warp and weft of life itself.

On a loom, warp threads are laid out first, then the weft threads wrap over and under the warp threads. These perpendicular threads create the weave that creates the textile. Without these opposing forces, there would be no fabric.

Moments when I, beyond any doubt, experienced joy:

  • In college, feeling so stressed and exhausted that I lay down on the grass under a tree, happened to see sky through the leaves, and realized that the same forces that made the tree made me, so everything would be okay.
  • Being reunited with my mom after my first extended absence from home and bursting into tears I didn’t realize I’d been holding in.
  • Recognizing Guy as the person I would marry, discovering that he felt the same, and together shaking our heads in awe and gratitude to have found each other.
  • Digging deep a hundred times with my kids to get to the bottom of a conflict we were in, only to find new levels of compassion and reaches of capacity that brought us closer.
  • Doing The Work of Byron Katie on my own and with my clients, which is to say: investigating the thoughts that cause suffering and finding peace.

What unites these moments? Warp and weft. Opposing threads of darkness – exhaustion, stress, sorrow, lostness, suffering – and light – rest, relief, belonging, love, peace – creating a life.

Joy is not the light threads. It arises from the relationship between light and dark.

My dad asked me once if I was happy being a mom. I may have been complaining about something, or maybe I was talking excitedly about what the kids were up to. When he asked me that question, I flashed back to life before kids – happy days, when I had everything that I thought I wanted: loving husband, the career I’d dreamed of, a pretty house, and the freedom to go out and do whatever we wanted. But something was missing. I wanted something deeper.

I told Dad that it wasn’t so much that I was happy. It’s that life with kids was big. And good. Deeply good.

“Joyful,” I summarized.

“Yeah,” he replied. “I get it.”

Cultivating Joy

In Be the Heroine 2 right now, we’re focused on joy. It is the last phase in our year of discovering “How Good Can It Get?”

Because joy arises, it – like sleep, love, healing – cannot be manufactured, coerced, or bought. But it can be cultivated, the conditions prepared, and harvested, which is to say: noticed.

I’m changing metaphors here, moving from the mechanical, weaving, to the organic, cultivating. Stay with me!).

So, first, prepare the field. What ingredients make your soil rich? Here are some of mine to get you started:

  • Love – especially when it’s unconditional.
  • Affection – especially when it’s for no good reason.
  • Nature – its mindboggling complexity and superfluous beauty.
  • Loss – Imagine it’s the last time you’re doing something. What arises from the feelings of loss and gratitude?
  • Food – What a miracle! Really look. Really taste. (Bonus: Did someone prepare it for you?)
  • Words and music – Songs and poetry are greater than the sum of their parts.
  • Laughter – the snorting, doubled-over-breathless kind.

And now, notice. What arises when you do?

Bonus: Joy Bingo

If you want to make a practice out of this, try Joy Bingo. Create a grid five squares across and five squares down. In each box, write a joy cultivar (is that the word?). Color in the box when you have noticed it in your life. Be as creative with your Bingo card as you like. (Creativity is a cultivar!) Award yourself for Joy Bingos.

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