Joy is the Mount Everest of human emotions. Can depth psychology, knowing well the slopes and faults and ridges of our psyche, lead us like a powerful Sherpa guide to the heights of such euphoria?
As if in awe of joy, psychology doesn’t dare say a lot about it. The sublime emotion has spiritual and religious connotations, so it’s a touchy subject for psychology. Mental-health experts can dispense valuable knowledge but we wouldn’t dare take credit for instilling joy. We bow before its mystery and sacredness.
We’re thrilled just to help our clients escape from suffering. We rightfully consider that our intervention has been successful when a client breaks free from emotional pain to find a quiet inner space—a neutral corner of the psyche—from where he or she can begin to flourish.
The best psychology can help people get to the last base camp on the ascent to joy. From there, climbers must proceed by means of their instincts, character, intuition, integrity, courage, willingness to endure hardship, and sense of destiny.
Joy is happiness and meaningfulness and connection and generosity and compassion all rolled into one grand moment. It’s most likely felt when all that is right and good and true about ourselves, and beautiful about life, come gusting into our consciousness. Atop the summit where our colors are unfurled, joy is registered in gratitude and wonder.
And yet … and yet, beware the counterfeit version of joy. A maniacal joyfulness is sometimes felt by people experiencing mood fluctuations and mental-health disorders. A case is mentioned of a man who won money in a lottery. Although previously healthy and stable, he became uncontrollably hilarious and then maniacal from an excess of emotion. His new wealth might have clashed with an unconscious poverty mentality that sprouted from his attachments to deprivation or unworthiness.
Bipolar disorder is often marked by inflated self-esteem or grandiosity, accompanied by counterfeit joyfulness. Reactive joy can also follow sorrowful events or bouts of depression, only to quickly swing back to negative states of emotion.
But let’s put the counterfeit version aside and say more about the real thing. Encounters with joy are important. Even just brief and far-between experiences of it can clear away congestion in our psyche, thereby producing fresh resolve and renewed self-affirmation.
Joy offers, in all its diversities of peak and everyday experience, a mountain range of summits, among them beauty, truth, freedom, gratitude, generosity, art, literature, music, integrity, achievement, love, vitality, and, of course, the one upon which we plant the pennant of self-discovery.
I have acquired, after years of inner work, some degree of access to what I call quiet joy. This is a sense of being alive that’s rich in mellow pleasure. It stems from a cozy relationship with my authentic self, and I would say the feeling is a grade above straight-forward happiness. I’m happy most of the time, though certainly not always joyful. I can tap into this quiet joy at various times, especially when I’m inwardly silent. Quiet joy is most available to me when I’m lying in bed before falling asleep, or when awakening through the night, with my stilled mind registering the pleasure of being.
In my younger years, I was, as I’ve written elsewhere, a neurotic mess. Believe me, if I was able to get myself to this better place, just about anyone can. People just have to understand the inner dynamics that trigger them or bind them to a constraining inner status quo. My self-development over the years has primarily involved my resolution of inner conflict and my release of negative emotions, both of which produced unpleasant and painful symptoms. I simply don’t get triggered like I used to. Painful negative emotions have pretty well dissipated.
My quiet joy isn’t pinned on any one thing in particular. I could conceivably pin it on feeling fulfilled in terms of work and career. I could pin it on having been of good service to lots of people. I could pin it on being financially secure. I could pin it on being a kind and considerate person and being in a happy marriage. But I don’t. Mostly I feel quiet joy because so little negativity is left inside me. This is probably my greatest achievement, to have become a lot less negative over the years. All along, this feeling of equanimity was my birthright. All I had to do was get rid of the garbage that was stinking up the place.
I did feel especially joyful about a specific event that occurred early last month. I mentioned it on Facebook at the time, and I now repeat the story, with some elaborations. To ascend to joy, we sometimes have to give something of ourselves, often the goodness of our heart.
My wife, Teresa Garland, and I had just set out on an early evening walk. A block away from our house and heading toward town, I spotted a white envelope on the sidewalk. I said to myself while bending down to pick it up, “What’s the point? It’s just garbage.” It was a bank envelope, and right away I could tell from its thickness that something was in it. Pulling back the seal and peeking inside, I saw a $100 bill. And many more!
No one was around, so I put the envelope in my pocket. We finished our walk, and back at home I counted the money. Wow—twelve $100 bills. Teresa walked back and left a note on the door of a house that faced the sidewalk where I found the envelope. The work crew renovating the house had gone for the day, and maybe for the weekend, since it was a Friday. Her note said an envelope had been found, and it gave our telephone number.
If we’d thought for a second about keeping the money, we’d have aroused inner conflict. Negative emotions would pop up to haunt us. There’d be no joy in Mudville if we swung at that curve ball. When people are in a healthy place, they’re not likely to accept or to keep any amount of money that has the loss of integrity attached. When we do something that’s beneath us, our inner self, the curator of our joy, retreats into the depths and hides away out of sight and mind.
Would a finders-keepers-losers-weepers clause be in effect for someone who was financially desperate? I’m in no position to comment or pass judgment, except to say that any keeper of the money would not likely be cashing in on joy.
We got no phone calls over the weekend. About mid-morning on Monday, Teresa walked down to the work site, knocked on the door and told a friendly middle- aged man we’d found an envelope. He grinned and said “You’re going to make one young man very happy.” (The work crew had come in the back door and hadn’t seen the note at the front.) Teresa told him, “He needs to come to pick it up.”
Five minutes later, a shy young man was at our door. He didn’t know why he had been sent to us: “My boss just told me to come here to get something.” I asked him if he’d lost an envelope with money in it. “Yes,” he said, in a downcast whisper. I asked him how much was in it, and he confirmed the amount.
I pulled the envelope out of my pocket and gave it to him. He looked at it astonishingly. I had him count the money, although he at first hesitated to do so, saying he didn’t need to. Initially, he was at a loss for words, and his eyes misted over. He got quite emotional, as did Teresa and I. He wondered if he should give us something as a reward, and we said no need for that.
I watched his expression closely as he counted the money. I was—I admit—adding up all the joy the moment afforded. My delight was in making someone very happy, and also in simply living up to the everyday ideals of humanity. I identified with the relief he felt, while savoring the decency in myself and Teresa. From this emotional summit, I saw all the way to the far horizon what is good and right about life.