What is joy?

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Joy – noun  

  1. the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires: delight. 
  2. The expression or exhibition of such emotion: gaiety
  3. A state of happiness or felicity: bliss

Joy – verb

  1. To experience great pleasure or delight: rejoice

Br. David Steindl-Rast

“Joy is the happiness for which the human heart longs, a lasting happiness, a happiness that does not depend on what happens. Unhappiness always results from wanting one thing while Life is giving us something different.”

Have you ever had a day, a moment, or an experience where you thought to yourself, this would be perfect if….?  

We often wish away the joy that is in front of us by placing expectations and conditions on the opportunity to be grateful, the opportunity to rejoice. These conditions usually include some common words: should, if, but, could, and when. These conditions also include internal factors like shame, guilt, and unworthiness. Conditions that inhibit gratefulness also inhibit joy.

When I think of a noise that expresses uninhibited joy it is the sound of children screeching in a pool. Those high-pitched whelps of joy draw attention like a siren.

Even though I spent my summers by water, I have only one memory of participating in such joy as a child. I perceived myself as an overweight kid and that perception made me ashamed to go swimming. Even now, decades later, I avoid a pool party like we avoided crowds in 2020. This childhood shame I carry comes at a great cost: I don’t rejoice in my incarnation — this remarkable gift of being alive and inhabiting a fully functioning body. The cost is not missed BBQs and splashing in the deep end. It’s much more. My body will not always fully function, and I have not fully enjoyed it while it does. I have not celebrated my embodiment. I have not been grateful for this gift.

While joyfulness is not an easy path neither is joylessness.

While I know and understand this truth, I still tell myself that I will jump in the pool when I’m 10 lbs lighter or when I’m the thinnest person at the party. These are conditions I create for my gratefulness. These are the limitations I put on my joy. And what births that joylessness? Fear. It’s always fear, both internal and external. 

While joyfulness is not an easy path neither is joylessness. Indeed, there are all too many opportunities to be joyless thanks to grief, trauma, tragedy, illness, the oppression of racism and economic disparities, politics, environmental destruction, and on and on. 

Absolutely, you can set perimeters for your joy and decide you’ll lean into it only once all energy is renewable energy, racism is eliminated, socio-economic disparities are eradicated, no one you love dies before you, your body holds strong until your 101st birthday, and humans finally figure out that everyone belongs and is worthy of dignity and love. Yes, of course, you can wait for these external variables — these conditions — which you cannot control or change. But I wonder about all you will miss as you wait for the right conditions. I wonder where you’ll find bliss.

The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, together, identified 8 pillars of joy to support becoming joy-filled: Perspective, humility, humor, acceptance, forgiveness, compassion, generosity, and gratitude. A grateful living practitioner will recognize that these attributes support a grateful life, and all eight of these pillars require interior work from youth to death. In other words, joy is not a wish in the night that comes in the morning. It is the work of a grateful orientation. This orientation is open to joy in all of life, no matter the context.

Suffering is ever-present. Joy is ever-present. They are here together and always will be. So how will you live within this reality?

Two remarkable Austrian, WWII survivors have said much about joy. Victor Frankl and Br. David Steindl-Rast are precise in their thinking, and it’s all about how we discover meaning in our life. Discovering our meaning is critical for joy because how we feel at home in our lives is what relieves us from fear.

And as you discover meaning, you are empowered to embrace the paradox, the both/and of your existence. Suffering is ever-present. Joy is ever-present. They are here together and always will be. So how will you live within this reality? 

In order to let joy get ahead of fear, the conditions for gratefulness must change. May we see each other poolside sometime soon.

Summary of Teachings

  1. When we create conditions for being grateful we limit our joy
  2. Discovering meaning empowers us to embrace the cohabitation of joy and suffering, which are always present
  3. Fear nurtures joylessness
  4. Should, but, could, and when thinking are common inhibitors to your joy
  5. Unconditional joy requires life-long work like unconditional love

Reflection Questions

  • What is a perception you have about yourself that inhibits your joy?
  • What is an external factor that you cannot change and that you allow to hold back your joy?
  • What would it look like if you felt fully empowered to lean into your joy and live into your bliss? 
  • How would others describe your gaiety?

Joe Primo, Grateful Living

Joe Primo, Grateful Living

About the author

Joe Primo is the Chief Executive Officer of Grateful Living. He is a passionate trainer, community-builder, and program developer whose accomplishments in the field of grief made him a leading voice on resilience and adversity. Grateful living became a pillar to his work since his first introduction to Br. David Steindl-Rast in 2005. An entrepreneurial leader, Primo designed, built, expanded, and led Good Grief, Inc., the largest children and family bereavement organization in the Northeast, from 2007-2022. His TED talk, “Grief is Good,” reframed the grief paradigm as a responsive resource. He is the author of “What Do We Tell the Children? Talking to Kids About Death and Dying” and numerous articles.