Sunday, July 16, 2023

The Joy Thief

Finding joy at the MFA: a glass of prosecco and some journaling

A few years ago, Marie Kondo's television show and books were all the rage. Folks fell under her spell as she instructed the world to declutter, simplify, and embrace a more minimalist lifestyle. I, too, watched her show and read her books. However, the only thing I learned was how to fold my sweaters to fit into my drawers, which in turn, allowed me to buy more sweaters. I also learned about joy, more precisely, the act of continuously asking if something sparks it. 

I applied this concept of "sparking joy" to everything -- objects, actions, and people. Quite honestly, it has worked well for me. My house is filled with objects that make me happy ... granted, it's way more than what Kondo envisioned in her lessons. I ask myself constantly if something I'm doing is "sparking joy," or more precisely, bringing my life into balance and making me content. For example, teaching "sparks joy." Art definitely "sparks joy." As for people, I find applying Kondo's lesson much more difficult. I have to remind myself that work colleagues need not "spark joy," while those with whom I choose to surround myself in my personal life most definitely should. 

Research, reading, and writing bring me joy.

I've been thinking a lot about happiness lately and how Americans approach it. We actively seek happiness with every fiber of our being and don't understand that it's a fleeting emotion like anger or sadness. For the most part, Americans see happiness as a commodity. We can attain it through our savings, careers, families, vacations, etc. Like commodities, happiness depletes, so we constantly strive to replace what is lost. I struggle with this every day because I know that happiness is not a sustainable state of being. Being content, being at ease, finding joy in our life -- these are sustainable. Joy and contentment are wrapped up in this ideal of happiness, yet have very little to do with it.  You can't buy these. You can't even achieve them through careers or having 2.3 kids. You cultivate them like a garden, and like a garden, they take work to grow. Small everyday actions like meditation or religious practice, reading a good book, playing with your pup, making something with your hands, daydreaming, tending a garden or taking care of a houseplant, and simple rituals like tea drinking in the afternoon cultivate contentment and joy. For example, Ed and I spend our mornings on the couch or on our deck outside sipping coffee and eating breakfast. We've been doing it for years. This simple ritual brings me great joy. I can't imagine starting my day without it.

Various art objects at the MFA, American Wing 2nd Floor, Aesthetic Art

As I was wandering around the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston on Friday, I realized that what I was experiencing wasn't happiness. Rather, I was at peace and felt content. I didn't feel worried or anxious. I wasn't thinking about work or the various things that have been upsetting me. I was enjoying where I was and was fully in the moment. Sure, I wrote down thoughts and ideas for future projects or to show my students during this coming semester. Heck, I even took some time to flesh out an assignment that I want to give my Intro students! Everything I did or thought revolved around the place where I was, what I was seeing, and those things that bring me great joy and satisfaction -- art, research, and teaching.

It dawned on me in the that moment that I wasn't miserable, as I've been telling myself for the past few years. Instead, I was allowing others and myself rob me of joy and contentment. Standing in front of a display of Arts and Crafts art pottery, I had an "A-HA!" moment! As I commuted home to Salem, I mulled this over: what are the things, events, and people that rob me of my joy. What robs me of my peace and balance? What do I allow into my life through my own responses to things, events, and people that robs me of my contentment? The list was telling. 

I can work on changing my attitudes and reactions to certain things, but others will need to be removed from my life. Like my garden, I will need to weed out those things that are strangling me. Like my garden, I will also need to fertilize and water those things that bring me joy. I know there will be lots of changes and I will probably disappoint some people, but that is not my problem or responsibility.

What robs you of your joy? What brings you joy? What would you like to cultivate?


  1. I have been contemplating joy and happiness lately too. I’ve never trusted *happy* but *joy* seems pretty chill. Joy doesn’t seem to hold the same expectations that happiness does. Happiness is usually attached to something—a place, experience, or even a person. With that comes expectations and the possibility of those expectations not coming to fruition. I live by rituals and if I don't keep them, I'm terribly off-balanced.

    1. Exactly! Happiness is not a permanent state. It's something that one experiences in that moment and which fades when the moment is over. Happiness is akin to sadness or anger. Joy and contentment are sort of mellow. They don't scream or yell. They just are.

      I think we've had a long conversation about our rituals. I'm reading your comment and it's bringing me back to the shores of the Mississippi. I believe we were sipping hurricanes in New Orleans. We NEED to do that again, albeit when it isn't so hot.