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Saturday, 25 January 2014

How Much Joy is there in Your Life?

“Find a place inside where there’s joy, and the joy will burn out the pain.”  Joseph Campbell

Whenever new clients tell me that they are depressed, unhappy or lost in life, I always make it a point to ask them early on in the counselling sessions, “do you have any joy?  And if so when do you have it?”  Most of them answer, “no,” and I feel that this answer has much to say about the problem. 

I think of joy as a bit like a barometer in a person’s life.  I often remark to my clients, “one ounce of joy is worth a ton of pain.”  Joy is explosive stuff.  It smashes though pain, sorrow or despair like nitro-glycerine.  However bad things are, experiencing some moments of joy can be like a fuel that keeps us going and makes life worthwhile.  In this respect, the only other things that I can think of that keep people going through really difficult times are love and meaning.  Both of these are good, but neither seems to spring from nowhere and both take time and are sometimes hard to find.  There is something about joy which can feel like revelation or transcendence.  It adds a bit of what feels like magic and often  it doesn’t seem to have taken much work at all – it just comes – sometimes unexpectedly, sometimes by doing something we can connect to.

First, I want to define what joy is and how it differs from happiness, pleasure and contentment.  Pleasure is always fleeting – whether or not we feel later that it was full or empty.  No one would want a life without any pleasure.  It would be awful and dull indeed; but like eating chocolate or spending money, no amount of it can make you happy.  Happiness can also be fleeting.  Although more sustained than pleasure and deeper for sure, it could be here one hour and gone the next.  One may have a perfect day in the sunshine one day, for instance, and then someone very close may die the next.  That seems to be the way life is at times.  Although contentment isn’t quite so keenly felt as happiness and you may not get quite the same buzz, it is more lasting and deep.  It is a general feeling that life is good and that there is a lot more to enjoy than to suffer in a typical stretch of time.  It is not possible to be content one day and not the next, although ones levels of contentment can go gradually up and down with the events and feelings brought upon by life.  Many philosophers and psychologists have said that it is better, and more realistically sustainable, to be content than to be happy. 

Joy is something different, a bit of an X Factor ingredient, in fact. You’ll certainly know if you’ve had it.  It feels a little bit like a lightning bolt or feeling on the wave of something marvellous.  It may be there in those moments when we feel that life is wonderful and it is good to be alive.  It seems to come from within but also seems to connect with what is outside of us on a profound level.  Richard Wagner commented that, “Joy is not in things; it is in us.” Unlike pleasure which seems to come from something outside of us, joy seems to spring up from inside.

Joy usually lasts anywhere from a few minutes to a whole day and there may be lucky times when it visits frequently.  Many people comment that these feelings arise when they are in nature, perhaps sitting in a field of wild flowers or walking in a wood and listening to the birds.  Most of us find it when we are in love - especially when we make love – the sense of connection can be deep and powerful - sex is normally pleasurable, but when it is joyous it seems to tap into our life-source and can be transcendent.  Some people feel it with moments of sporting success or with the arts – music and dancing are often quoted.  The poet Keats said that, “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever,” and so we can see how the arts and nature would tap into this.  Sometimes being with a friend and finding yourself suddenly at one with them can also bring it.  Spending time playing with children, especially our own can also bring it.  Hobbies can bring moments of it, too, and those who have religious faith will also speak of knowing joy from time to time.  And most of us know that giving can be joyous – much more joyous than receiving. 

These things all have in common a sense of being connected (even if momentarily) to someone or something that seems to make us fully alive and take us beyond ourselves to a wider sense of the specialness of things around us and beyond us.  Moments of joy can be closely connected to our “inner child.”  Children seem to tap into joy more than adults....think of “jumping for joy” and you think of yourself as being childlike or perhaps like a new-born spring lamb discovering his legs for the first time.  What happens to us as adults to deprive us of that?

When one has joy, there is a sense of freedom - of being like a bird; and when one has despair there is a sense of heaviness.  Joy resolves into peace, whereas if you are in despair a sense of stagnation and meaninglessness is sure to follow.  It has been reported (for instance by a Macmillan Cancer survey) that people turn to moments of joy when they recall what was good about their lives. These moments made them feel that their lives were good and that it was great to be alive, and they feel buoyed up by that as death approaches.  Near to their end, few people seem to be consoled much by the gods of pleasure and money.  Of course it is good to have had those, but they won’t ultimately give anyone a sense that life has been good.  

C S Lewis commented, “I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for joy.”  If he were alive today, I suspect that he’d probably say just how much truer that was now than it was when he wrote it – for the world is getting fuller and fuller of pleasures, and distractions – most of them offering instant gratification and triviality rather than something deeper.  For instance, one wonders how many people who find themselves addicted to Facebook would want or need to be so wrapped up in it if they had moments of joy in their lives.

Given how explosive and enlivening joy can be, one begins to see that, no matter how bad things are in a person’s life, it can blast though it – perhaps not permanently – permanent changes take time – but enough to give a sense that things are going to get better and that the world is not such a bad place after all.  When people are depressed, that is what they need to feel.  They need to feel that life is worthwhile and that there is something in it that can make them feel good.

Counselling can be a perfect place to explore joy in your life.  Do you have any?  What is it and where does it come from?  When are you likely to experience it?  If you don’t have any, why not?  Is there someone who helps you to find it?  Are you somehow sabotaging it or is someone around you trying to do that?  Did you have it in the past or as a child?  Have you stopped doing something that you used to do that brought you it?    Have you started becoming overwhelmed by the cares, responsibilities and jobs of this world rather than allowing a space for joy? 

This is why I always talk about joy to my clients who come saying that they are depressed, have no meaning or feel lost, sad or lonely.  I know from my own life and those of previous clients just how powerful a force joy is and how it shifts things and brings hope. Finding joy or at least creating the conditions were joy might arise can be an important way of moving out of depression. Joy can be a barometer showing how a person’s life is.

David is a fully qualified and BACP Accredited Counsellor.  If you wish to talk about joy in your life, you can book a face to face or skype session with him by ringing 07578 100256 or emailing him at  You can also follow him on Twitter as Contented Counsellor at:!/SeddonDavid

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